As luck would have it, at the end of a three week long Nordic holiday attending a wedding in Helsinki, visiting family in Tampere and celebrating midsummer on the Åland Islands, the day the Englishman and I were packing up the cottage to return home to London via Helsinki (a complicated route from the islands involving an overnight ferry), my back ‘went’. I am yet to hear if it is the dreaded slipped disc, but enough to say that my packing activities were suddenly halted.
Although in pain, I could just about walk, so we decided to travel as planned. I had the Englishman to help, and luckily we had just the two pieces of luggage. He could manage with those if I got some help in getting on and off boats and planes.
The first leg of the journey, an overnight crossing with Viking Line from Mariehamn to Helsinki went well enough. We phoned in advance and when we turned up at the terminal a wheelchair was waiting for me. A friendly girl in the Viking ticket office took us on what can only be described as two goods’ lifts to the waiting area on the third floor. She wasn’t, however, allowed to actually take me onboard so I limped – trying to avoid the small crowd pushing past me – into the ferry. Our cabin was comfortable enough and after a Lonkero (those who have ever tasted this Finnish gin drink know about its restorative qualities) while watching the endless twilight over the Baltic through our cabin window, I actually felt somewhat OK.
As we pulled into a fog laden Helsinki, the shipping company had forgotten about my special needs. The Englishman’s very British sarcasm about the impossibility of an overnight miracle cure fell onto dumb Finnish ears, so we had to wait for assistance while the rest of the passengers fought for the few taxis outside. Oh well, at least we got into town eventually, and were able to deposit our luggage at the ground floor of the train station (using a functioning large lift – hurrah). At this stage I was just looking forward to a decent coffee at the Fazer cafe in town, and later a brunch at the Kämp Hotel.
The Helsinki Vantaa airport was in its usual Sunday afternoon chaos. When I asked how it was always thus, the staff replied it was due to many large planes arriving and leaving at the same time (strange thing at an airport, huh?). Luckily BA has its own check-in desk where the staff were sympathetic when the Englishman asked for assistance, while I was sitting on the most stylish – and uncomfortable – airport seat imaginable. Nordic design, eh? After a painful 30-minute wait, we were told the airport staff had forgotten about us. Another 15 minutes later I was picked up and whizzed to the gate, past security and passport queues, by a friendly and efficient member of the airport staff. It took only two goes by the Englishman to see to it that we would get into the aircraft first as my walking was so slow. I was afraid of the Nordic queuing system where no prisoners are taken to get to the front. I’d learned by now that any small shove or push, or a children’s pushchair being bashed into my legs, would send painful darts into my spine.
The 3 hour flight was OK. BA aircrew were busy but understanding of my predicament. But at Heathrow it all fell apart. While at this stage I’d been travelling – in pain – for over 20 hours, I just wanted to get off the plane and home as soon as possible. But this wasn’t to be. A lift to get me – and a man in his own wheelchair – off the aircraft took the best part of an hour. I was then put into one of those noisy cars which I’ve often wished would pick me up after a tiring red-eye from NYC and drive me to the passport control. But I tell you, reader, it’s not as wonderful as it looks. Because the care of special assistance is covered by several ‘agents’ at Heathrow. I’m not sure how it all works in other parts of the airport but at least in terminal three, the car dropped me off to wait at an inordinately uncomfortable seat somewhere between the gates and immigration. There were several people at this ‘meeting point’ who were much more poorly than me, having to wait for about half an hour to be picked up by another ‘agent’ with a wheelchair. I lost count of how many times the young guy – clearly inexperienced in wheelchair use – bashed my legs against railing or lift walls, or how much it hurt when he pushed me at speed over bumps and ridges on the floors. I had to tell him to slow down, and to cry out once, before he realised I was human and in pain.
But the problem at Heathrow wasn’t just the the lack of experienced staff. According to a lady with a bad leg, who had been travelling with a stick for ten years, the wait for wheelchairs and agents introduces other problems. Taxi drivers outside are kept waiting (and often charge extra for the wait), and by the time the wheelchair is supplied, and the travellers are through passport control, luggage carrousels have been reassigned to the next flight and the unclaimed items removed. All problems, which could have been avoided if the same car had driven everyone to their final destinations.
Needing special assistance truly opened my eyes to how poorly our society looks after disabled people in (at least) the two countries I know. Talking to the other people at Heathrow, it doesn’t seem to make any difference if you let the airlines know about your requirements well in advance (which I couldn’t do). The service is still poor.
I haven’t even commented on the lack of disabled loos almost everywhere, or the number of able-bodied people using the facilities without any shame (this happened to me at Fazer Cafe in Helsinki where, leaning onto a wall and obviously in pain, I had to wait while two giggling Swedish women of my age used the loo before me), or loos in basements where the lift is only accessible through a set of steps (truly ingenious, Hotel Kämp).
After this experience I feel so grateful and lucky to have a temporary problem with my back, because I’m not sure I could cope with another journey needing special assistance.