In August 2017, paraplegic athlete and trainer Justin Levene flew into Luton airport near London to discover that his custom-made manual wheelchair had not arrived with him on the plane. Unfortunately, this happens to many manual and power wheelchair users, and the only option at the time is to use an airport chair. Luton airport offered to transport Levene in a high-backed wheelchair that had small wheels and could not be self-propelled. Levene asked for a self-propelled wheelchair, which the airport did not have. He then asked for a motorized “buggy,” which I assume is equivalent to a scooter or power chair or golf cart, which they also did not have. Because Levene did not want to be strapped into the push-chair, wanted to self-propel, and was concerned about developing pressure sores, he instead chose to drag himself along the ground. He later opted to hop on a rolling luggage cart and propel himself that way to the taxi stand. He is now suing the Luton airport, arguing they should have had the proper equipment. He declined the only help available and claims he was “forced” to crawl on the ground. Should he have accepted the help available or taken a stand?
There are two sides to this argument, and even though this incident happened more than a year ago, the controversy is being played out today since the news of his lawsuit was only recently publicized. First, let’s take a look at Levene’s point of view. as a power wheelchair user who travels alone, I am extremely nervous every time I fly in fear that my chair, which is equivalent to an able-bodied person’s legs, will be damaged or left behind. In either case, I would essentially be stranded and be forced to return home since I don’t have the strength to use a manual wheelchair. The airline is clearly at fault for not loading Levene’s manual chair at the port of departure, causing him to wait 24 hours to get back a mobility aid that is like an extension of his body.
I have had to use both self-propelled manual wheelchairs and hard-seat airport chairs that had to be pushed by someone else. Both are incredibly uncomfortable, especially the latter. I have had to sit on a harder airport chairs for more than an hour, and I can attest to the fact that they can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful. However, given the capability of the relevant airport, or lack thereof, and their policies in a foreign country where I had no rights to complain under law, I kind of had to suck it up and go with it. However, this happened in Levene’s home country, and he’s likely suing the airport because he feels he has the legal grounds to do so. Luton Airport is not small by any means, and there is no question that they should have at least had self-propelled manual wheelchairs available for passengers who need them. It is incredibly difficult to use the bathroom independently with an airport chair like that, and I just personally despise being pushed by someone else. I understand why Levene felt that his independence and dignity were taken away by the situation.
Looking at the other side of the story, I do question Levene’s claim that he was “forced” to drag himself along the ground. No one suggested, let alone told him, that he take to the floor if he wanted to go anywhere on his own. He said he was concerned about developing pressure sores in the time it would take for airport personnel to wheel him to the terminal exit and the taxi stand, but he did not seem concerned about any skin damage he might sustain by dragging himself along the ground or rolling on a metal baggage cart. He lamented that his dignity was taken away and he would feel humiliated by being wheeled in a non-self-propelled wheelchair, but I can’t imagine how humiliating it must’ve been to be stared at while crawling along the ground in a busy airport. All of this was captured with photos and video.
The debate in this particular situation is whether Levene should have simply accepted the assistance available to him for the short duration of time he would have been uncomfortable in order to expedite his exit from the airport, or if it was appropriate for him to take such a public stand and bring awareness to the airport’s lack of sufficient accommodation for passengers with disabilities. Responses to the articles about this incident and the subsequent lawsuit have fallen on both sides. But this also begs the question, where do we draw the line at accepting offers of assistance or taking a stand to bring awareness to the fact that available assistance is either insensitive to our needs or just not sufficient in general?
I will be the first one to admit that I hate asking for help. If there is something that I can safely do by myself, I will generally decline offers of help. When I travel, I firmly believe that if there is something I can’t do by myself safely, then I shouldn’t be doing it. That being said, I forget that it makes people feel good to help. If they offer to help, it’s usually because they genuinely want to do it. I’m guilty of sometimes looking too deeply into their motivations. Are they being kind or do they feel sorry for me? Are they offering to help because they feel obligated to do so since I’m disabled, or because helping is something they would do for anyone? I’ve gotten much better at accepting help. It’s really nice to have someone take my suitcase off the luggage belt at the airport. It’s also really nice to have doors open for me since they can often be very heavy. Just like Levene, I’m a very independent person, but it also takes some humility to accept that we do have physical limitations sometimes.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, either about Levene’s situation and lawsuit, or your personal experience with accepting or denying offers of help!