Having just returned from a holiday abroad, I'm beginning to think that Al Gore was onto something when he said that air travel was 'nature's way of making you look like your passport photo'. Although I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer numbers of travellers being 'processed', it didn't stop me feeling haggard by the time I eventually boarded the aeroplane. I'm sure that my experience was pretty typical: endless queues full of irritating people; bag and body scanners; poorly behaved children (that should have been in school anyway); last minute worries (did I lock the backdoor?). I could keep adding to this list, but I don't think there is much point; you get the picture. It's one of stress, anxiety, worry and frustration. As far as I can see, the only saving grace about the whole experience is that airports are about the only place in the world where you can drink alcohol at 8 o'clock in the morning and not feel that you have a problem; no one bats an eyelid!
Imagine though, going through this ordeal with the added complication of a hidden disability or condition... perhaps as a deaf person or as a person with autism. Maybe, instead, you have a stoma. A stoma is where the bowel and/or bladder is diverted through the abdomen so that bodily waste can pass into a stoma bag. Stoma surgery is used to treat all types of illnesses, including cancer and Crohn's disease. It is also sometimes necessary following abdominal injuries. Often referred to as ostomates, people with stomas face some very specific problems when travelling.
To begin with there's the medical supplies. These need to be both easily accessible during the journey itself and of sufficient quantity to cover the length of time away. Allowances also have to made for the upset tummy that, as we all know, can accompany eating foreign food or a change in climate. All this has obvious implications for luggage allowances, especially hand luggage. Then there's the body scanners. At the Colostomy Association we know that these are a great concern for many ostomates. So much so in fact, that for some they present an unassailable barrier to travel. It's easy to understand why. If you set the alarm off when you walk through, then the security officer has to 'pat' you down. For an ostomate, this can mean having to explain, in front of the waiting hordes, what that 'bag' is under their clothing. There is also no guarantee that the security officer will know what a stoma is. Sadly, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, public awareness is currently lacking. Suddenly, that long queue at the check-in desk doesn't seem half as so bad...
Thankfully, notwithstanding current security concerns, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is on the case and in December 2016 published 'Guidance for airports on providing assistance to people with hidden disabilities'. The document's central message is simple: that people with hidden disabilities and conditions should enjoy the same opportunities for air travel as everybody else. It includes a whole range of practical suggestions for making this happen, from improved airport signage to additional assistance for people with limited mobility. Quite rightly, great emphasis is also placed on raising awareness amongst passenger-facing staff. Having helped deliver training sessions to airport staff in the past, the Colostomy Association is delighted to be working with the CAA again in this area. We hope that with our input airport staff will be better equipped to engage and communicate with affected passengers. In our experience, ostomates are not expecting different treatment. Instead, they crave sensitivity in the way they are dealt with, particularly when it comes to body scanners. Although many are already globetrotters, we know from a recent visit to a support group in Sheppey (Sheppey Ostomy and IBD Group Support) that many people with stomas still harbour great concerns about foreign travel. Hence, in our view, anything that can be done to raise awareness, ease transit through the airport and nudge the less confident to enjoy the pleasures of foreign travel, is worthwhile!
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