In a long-running joke among airline flight crews and frequent flyers, Jetway Jesus is said to “heal” passengers who request wheelchair assistance at their point of departure but abandon it on arrival. Such airline passengers are accused of faking a disability to enjoy the privileges of preboarding and preferential treatment at TSA security checkpoints.
Private Facebook groups organized by frequent flyers are filled with complaints about the large number of disabled people who delay boarding for first class passengers and elite members in airline loyalty programs. They discuss the “miracles” performed by Jetway Jesus and attempt to shame those who utilize wheelchair assistance at the airport, which is a federally-protected civil right. These accusations ring hollow and suggest a deep misunderstanding of disability.
I concede that there are likely people who have gamed the system, falsely claimed disability and cut the boarding line. But those instances are surely rare, and not nearly as common as the most frequent flyers believe. And, based on my own observations as a wheelchair traveler who has taken more than 600 flights, I don’t think it’s even remotely common. In all those flights, across more than 30 different airlines, I have never suspected anyone of faking their need for wheelchair assistance.
Disabilities are unique to the individual and their symptoms may not be constant. Disabling conditions are not always visible. In a 2015 article in the Indianapolis Star, a special assistance contractor said that requests for assistance come from a wide range of people. Examples might include “a teen-ager with a broken leg, people who recently had surgery, or the elderly who can’t make the long walk through the airport.” Not every person with a disability is missing their legs.
Tales of the Jetway Jesus are a fantasy, and I’d wager that no one has ever had a disability or injury cured over the course of a single flight. Still, there are many reasons why a passenger might require assistance at departure, but decline it on arrival. Perhaps the symptoms of their condition have subsided? Perhaps their connecting gate or the terminal exit is nearby and within their range? Not all airports are the same size, and someone may need assistance in the mile-long terminals at the New York-JFK, Philadelphia or Atlanta airports, but not at smaller stations like Ft. Myers or Savannah.
We should commit to learning about disability before casting judgment on those who may need a hand from time to time. Jokes like Jetway Jesus have formed out of a very real animus that exists against people with disabilities, and it is important to remember that there is no shame in requesting as much or as little assistance as needed. This is a right established by our government, and it is a benefit to us all.
Feature image courtesy Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star.
What would you say to someone who accuses you or a fellow passenger of faking a disability to get wheelchair assistance at the airport?