Growing up with a physical disability made me feel as though I wasn’t capable of doing anything without some type of assistance or accommodations. I couldn’t participate in various activities (events, games, sports, etc.) or reach the same milestones (driving, working, college away from home, traveling abroad, etc.). I wanted to experience that same type of independence, but didn’t know if it would ever be possible.
Without really meaning to, I discovered that flying by myself is something I’m actually very capable of. It’s the closest to being independent I’ve ever felt… even though I still have to reach out to strangers for help. Traveling gives me an overwhelming sense of freedom that I hadn’t ever experienced before.
My first solo flight was for my 19th birthday (2012) to visit my best friend in Florida. It was also my longest time away from home, so I had even more of a range of emotions. I was excited to be on this new adventure but very nervous and fearful. My physical limitations intimidated me and the thought of not having anyone familiar around to help me get through the travel day made me anxious.
Any doubts and fears I may have had about not being able to handle this Southwest Airlines flight disappeared after meeting the friendly woman who sat next to me. I was surprised that she sat in my row when she could’ve chosen any other seat on the empty plane (Southwest doesn’t provide assigned seating), but later learned it was a flight attendant’s thoughtful suggestion. We introduced ourselves and chatted briefly about our destinations, as strangers on planes sometimes do. She then noticed that I had limited mobility and couldn’t reach for my carry-on bag from the floor. I was relieved that I didn’t have to awkwardly ask for help; she just seemed to understand.
My new friend explained that she’s been living with a condition known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) ever since being assaulted by one of her students. She lost the use of her right arm and hand from this incident, so she did understand what it was like to not have full range of motion. I was happy to be able to open a package of food for her, something she often struggles with because of her own restrictions. We continued getting to know each other and noticed more personal similarities such as chronic pain and our love for Paul Newman. After chatting for the majority of the three hour flight, we exchanged contact information and have been Facebook friends ever since!
Flying has given me the opportunity to figure out who I am outside of the comfort of my home and familiar circles of friends. It was the missing puzzle piece in my effort to become as independent as possible, especially as a wary teenager. Though my independence will always be dependent on other people, I’ve found so much courage in needing to reach out and ask for help. I’ve learned a lot about myself, the kindness of strangers, and how to handle a variety of situations. The solo flights I’ve taken since my first one have strengthened my love of flying even more, and I’m always looking forward to when I’m able to do it all again.