A recent article in the New York Times brought attention to the fact that some travelers abuse airport wheelchairs in order to get preferential treatment through long security lines or during flight boarding. According to the article in the Times, airport workers have dubbed certain routes “miracle flights” because a number of passengers will request airport wheelchairs when they are boarding the flight, but no longer seem to need them once they arrive at their destination, where wheelchair users are the last to depart the plane. Anyone can request the use of a wheelchair and no proof of a disability is required.
The number of people who are actually abusing the system is probably quite small, and the apocryphal evidence given in the article might not be the whole story. It is important to remember that not all people who have a legitimate need for airport wheelchairs have a disability that is visible to the casual observer. People who are semi-ambulatory or who experience pain while walking may decide to request a wheelchair if they anticipate walking long distances or staying on their feet for a long time. Seeing someone who used an airport wheelchair later get up and walk does not necessarily mean that they were being deceptive. Asking for “proof of a disability” in order to use the airport wheelchair service would be an acceptable and intrusive barrier, and would shut out many people who legitimately need the service. Consider the older adult who cannot easily walk through a long airport terminal, but who would be unable to provide proof of a specific disability.