Traveling While Disabled: Invisible Disability Discrimination

Disability discrimination comes in many forms, including the backward sort of discrimination which involves assorted community gatekeepers deciding you’re not disabled enough to receive appropriate accommodations. I read this piece about travelers who are more severely mobility impaired than I am who have had to fight with airlines for replacement of their damaged mobility devices and grew quite angry. But it brought to mind what happened on my last airline trip to the 2016 Type-A Parent East Conference in Orlando.

The last time I flew was the first time I acknowledged (got over my denial) that I was impaired enough to request preboarding as a disabled person. (I have Asperger’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, polyarthritis, and some other undiagnosed pain conditions.)

My flight out was perfectly uneventful, but my flight back home had me in tears.

Picture of author, a woman with dark hair and sunglasses, with the words NOT DISABLED ENOUGH

The gate agent I was supposed to check in with about preboarding looked at me and my cane and decided that I didn’t get ACTUAL preboarding, I got to board after the preferred customers boarded. I didn’t understand that that’s what she meant by what she wrote on my boarding pass. When I tried to board with everyone in wheelchairs, I was told I would have to wait. I was extraordinarily fatigued at the end of my business trip, and I couldn’t stand. The only seats by the gate were blocked by a rope barrier and a sign, and I had to ask if they could move them so I could sit there. Once I sat down, I had to fight back tears.

A third gate agent came over and asked if I was okay. I explained that I wasn’t allowed to board yet because of what was written on my boarding pass, but I didn’t have the strength to stand and wait for my turn. She had a quick whispered conference with the woman who had stopped me from boarding because of what the first woman had written on my ticket, and I was allowed to board. I was so grateful.

But it all came down to the opinion of a random gate agent who looked at me and decided I didn’t look “disabled enough” to qualify for preboarding, with me too exhausted to advocate for myself.

I wrote to the airline about the incident. I remained civil, but made sure they understood that I was mistreated, and that they need educate their gate agents about disabled travelers with invisible disabilities. They did apologize, but I doubt they did anything about it.

I doubt we’ll see an end to disability discrimination in my lifetime, but maybe, if we keep on talking about it, we can decrease the frequency and severity of its incidents.

Read my Big Fat Medical Update for more details.

Christina Gleason (975 Posts)

That’s me: Christina Gleason. I’m a professional copywriter, editor, and blogger. My company is called Phenomenal Content. (Hire me!) I'm a multiply disabled autistic woman doing my best in this world built for abled people. I’m a geek for grammar, fantasy, and select types of gaming, including Twitch Sings and Plants vs Zombies 2. I hate vegetables. I have an intense phone phobia, so I’ll happily conduct business over email or IM instead.


  1. Ughhh I’m so sorry. This is terrible. I’m glad you wrote them about it. I have a medical condition and have to fly with medical equipment. I have been yelled at for too many bags or having a carry on that looked too big…it’s so disheartening. I’m so sorry for what you went through!

  2. I feel so sad about what you have been through. I hope you are still doing well. Thanks for your sharing! Just let other people realize how they should treat with a disabling person.

  3. This is my fear as I gear up for possible travel for the AFib and pacemaker problems. I have no clue what I should do upon my return home after procedures or surgery. I don’t have anything that says I’m disabled; just my pacemaker card and my medic alert bracelet.

    Ugh. I hate this happened to you and I’m scared that it will happen to me too.

  4. Yeah so much of this keeps on happening, Many events go unnoticed and these guys they don’t care, they might sent you an apologetic email. But they wont ever tell these gate agents to improve, even if they did tell one I am nit sure that people actually understand what being disabled means.

  5. This is a great piece Christina! As someone with disability I have experienced this a lot of time. I have a mechanical pacemaker in my heart and every time on airport security scanner I get picked up as I have this piece of metal attached to my heart. No all disabilities are visible. Well done.

  6. This mechanical apology actually amounts to nothing, just a procedural thing for the airlines. They should be sued or atleast must be named and shamed. This is cruel and totally insensitive.
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