I was stopped at Gimpo Airport because of my disability.
The sliding doors opened to chaos. Throngs of frazzled flyers brushed against me from each side. Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, was in four days, and the undergoing construction only intensified the frenzy. Once my parents and I got through the check-in line, the airline agent accepted our luggage, but then she declared that I would not be allowed to take my mobility scooter on the flight.
This must obviously be a misunderstanding, I thought.
The airline personnel took us off to the side, away from the counter.
“What kind of batteries are these?” An airline employee referred to the one that I used along with the spare that I brought in case of emergency. I answered that they were dry-cell batteries and was confused, for before my trip, I had already shared details about my scooter over the phone with this airline that confirmed with me it indeed can – and will – accommodate my scooter.
“Can you open them?” she asked.
Batteries for my scooter are in a big, about 30-pound heavy battery box that’s screwed shut. The spare one is smaller, but still weighing about 20 pounds. I realized then that these agents probably have never seen a scooter like mine.
“No, they’re sealed,” I explained. “Only a technician can open them. Also, you’d need proper tools.”
Soon afterwards, an airline agent brought a manual wheelchair and asked me to transfer into it. Another employee then pushed my scooter into an eerily grey security room, allowing only one of my parents to accompany me. Security personnel instructed my dad to disassemble my scooter and place the parts onto a track that led items into a tunnel. I immediately realized that I was not part of the usual inspection process. This was different.
Before departure at Los Angeles International Airport, my purse, placed in a grey container, got scanned while a TSA agent patted me down then moved on to check my scooter. She swabbed the parts with something made of a small, rectangular white material before placing it into a machine for inspection.
LAX – cleared.
Gimpo Airport – denied.
My fury from being denied access due to my disability raged within me even more when I thought about how it had been 17 years since my parents and I returned to South Korea. We had never visited after we immigrated to the States when I was six. Although I was raised in California and I became a naturalized U.S. citizen, my identity is just as Korean as it is American. That’s why the rejection stung more. I felt like my own people labeled me as an outsider.
The airline employee took us out of the security room. “Our scan shows that your batteries are made of gel. Air Busan does not allow wet-cell batteries to be boarded on our flights,” she said.
“My batteries are sealed and non-spillable,” I exclaimed. I was now furious. “I just landed in Incheon Airport earlier today after a 13-hour flight from LA. I had no issues at all getting through.”
My parents were livid, too. Raised voices and frowns prompted stares from the crowd. Noticing this, the general manager of Asiana Airlines – the company we booked our tickets from – said we could have a further discussion up in the lounge. We were already missing our flight, but I refused to be silenced.
“There is no Asiana Airlines flight that goes to Busan from here,” he said. “Asiana Airlines owns Busan Air. Do you have any documents for your scooter?”
I submitted pages from my scooter’s manual, which were ultimately in vain, for Asiana stated that they failed to prove that my batteries met safety policies. I could not get a hold of Asiana Airlines at LAX with it being after hours. I debated on calling the American embassy in Seoul. My mom frantically tried to change our tickets to a different airline that stated it could board my scooter on its plane, although the Asiana manager affirmed that rules regarding batteries applied to every airline at the airport.
I still don’t know whom to believe. Clearly, language was not the barrier that created this misunderstanding. Although I speak Korean fluently and tried my best to explain, my efforts weren’t enough. Airport personnel could see that my scooter was a mobility device, but they couldn’t realize what that actually means. My scooter enables me to get around, just like able-bodied people use their legs to walk. This means that my scooter enables me to retain my dignity and live my own life. When Asiana refused to accept my scooter, they rejected an integral part of me – a part I cannot control, a part I was given upon my birth. Instead of trying to learn about the difference between a gel and a wet-cell battery, explaining to me exactly why the supposed policy prohibits certain batteries, or assisting me to explore alternative travel options, Asiana failed to take any action. They merely repeated that the only way I would board an Air Busan flight was without my scooter, something that I could not be without. The airline operated under ignorance, which breeds prejudice that manifests into discrimination. Ableism leads “normal” people to expect people with disabilities to resign to a world designed for an able-bodied population. Preventing me to board with my scooter was denying me of my humanity.
I understand that the reality of today’s world demands thorough security checks, especially at airports, and I am a passenger who is willing to follow travel regulations. But security did not even run a body-check on me when I ultimately had no choice but to leave my scooter at the airport to catch the next flight, now being late evening. Asiana did not offer to lend me a manual wheelchair, either, leaving me with completely nothing. Asiana reminded me of every corrosive thought I had to learn to push away as I adapted to my progressive disability – that people with disabilities are a burden and that they are an inconvenience.
It is imperative to treat people with disabilities differently than those who are able-bodied; people with disabilities deserve assistance according to the limitations they have. In South Korea, airport personnel did not see this truth. It leads me to wonder: should I have crawled? Would that have made them truly understand?