A great book offers the opportunity to experience, to better understand, the lives of others. Through these written stories, the world becomes a more empathetic and tolerant place—one without outsiders or others—where everyone can feel an important part of the human family.
Today’s interview with Francine Falk-Allen offers insight into the life experience of a woman living with a disability from her bout with polio as a young child. The new author of No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability, Francine is an avid traveler and not one to let physical challenges take the wind out of her wanderlust.
Enjoy this conversation!
Your bout with polio as a toddler left you with a mostly paralyzed right foot and leg, and fairly constant pain, especially when you walk. So just doing fairly normal things around the house can be challenging. But you’ve found the indomitable will and strength to travel to more than half the states in the country and nearly twenty countries over the past fifty years. Please tell us why you travel? Why is it so important to you, and so worth the trouble?
I love getting out of my normal environment—much as I love my home and it’s often hard to sleep in other places, plus I miss my warm workout swimming pool if there’s not one available—and seeing some different scenery and culture. My husband and I are both interested in history, love to go to concerts in other areas, and also love to sample good food; we are casual foodies. So in New Orleans, there is a lot of all of that; naughty food, great blues and jazz, and artistic architecture and interesting history. In Paris, we like to go to classical concerts at the ancient chapel of St. Chappelle across from Notre Dame. But both of us also love nature and find it regenerating, so we’re happy sitting outdoors in the woods at Yosemite or elsewhere by a campfire or reading a good book. I can’t hike, but he loves to do that, so I’ll take my watercolors and sit someplace and paint and commune with nature. I also feel exhilarated and inspired by seeing a grand vista, as you will see in many national parks and other parts of the western states, especially.
Additionally, I’m not in constant pain; that has started up in the last ten or fifteen years, but staying active moderately and resting as needed manages it enough that I still enjoy life. When I travel, I often take a cold gel pack to freeze in case I get back pain, and I take a yoga mat so I can do my stretches each morning to get the kinks out.
Let’s talk the nuts and bolts of the travel industry: planes, trains, buses, cruise ships, hotels, airports, and so on. As a seventy-odd year old woman with a disability, are you generally pleased with the services, assistance, and infrastructure available to you? Where specifically might the industry improve?
Ha! Well, travel is a lot better for me since I got my mobility scooter. I don’t have to request a wheelchair in order to get through the vast expanse of an airport. However, most airlines are pretty good about providing wheelchairs with an attendant to get travelers from check-in to the gate, and even on to the plane if a transport chair is needed. I would say that the main improvement needed is for all airlines to ask the important questions in advance (which some do) when booking an air ticket. It’s important to differentiate whether the traveler can climb stairs at all, whether they need assistance on to the plane or can walk on, whether they need a wheelchair from check-in to the gate and from the destination gate to baggage claim and so on. Some airlines assume that if you need a wheelchair at all that you are totally incapacitated and will ask you to stay on the plane until everyone else disembarks. Often people with a disability are no slower than people with two or three children and diaper bags.
Another improvement would be for airports or airlines to see that the wheelchair arrives for the traveler more quickly. Sometimes I’ve had to wait at least twenty to thirty minutes for a chair. Knowing this, we have always allowed that we need to be at the airport at least two hours before a flight, but many people aren’t prepared for this, and if your ground transport is delayed in getting to the airport, it can be very stressful to be waiting for that chair in order to get to the plane. A few times, before I got my scooter, I have just started the long walk in case the attendant never showed up.
Another problem can be when there are too few attendants and they have to push two or three wheelchair travelers at once. So this is probably another situation where the attendants are not paid particularly great wages and the airlines or airports cannot attract the number of attendants they need. It is customary to tip the attendant; I used to tip $2 years ago but now I would tip at least $5 and more if the attendant has to wait a long time for the traveler to get food or use the restroom. They, like wait staff, may be dependent upon those tips, and the more people they transport, the more cash they’ll go home with at the end of the day.
A few times, my mobility scooter, which is lightweight and is put into the baggage hold by attendants after I get to the plane entrance, has been slightly damaged. It is a pretty big hassle to get it repaired and then to get the airlines to reimburse me for the damage, so I generally have just paid for that as a travel expense. It would be great if the baggage handlers were taught that every little gizmo on a scooter is critical to its functioning, and critical to assist a person with a disability to be able to function, as well. Those devices need to be treated like an expensive racing bicycle!
American trains are not as accommodating as European ones for getting on and off with a scooter or wheelchair; not all stations or platforms are well set up with close accommodation and obvious ramps, plus only some cars have a place for a scooter to be stored or a wheelchair to be clamped in. That could be improved so that train travel would be more attractive (read: easier).
I have never taken a cruise except a canal cruise in France, for which there was essentially no accommodation because of the size of the boats. I haven’t wanted to be tied to the early schedule of a cruise boat nor the crowds of people, but we may look at a river cruise at some point. I hear they are very accommodating for wheelchairs and scooters.
How do you feel about the Americans with Disabilities Act? Why aren’t you a fan of ADA rooms in hotels?
I am eternally grateful that the ADA was passed. There are many more places that I can access with much less difficulty than I would be having if I always had to climb stairs, which have become extremely difficult for me, as an ambulatory “crip.” (Most disabled people are not in wheelchairs; they are still walking with canes, crutches, and walkers.) I am additionally grateful that my friends in wheelchairs are able to access many more venues now; it was true prior to the ADA that there were elementary, high schools, and colleges where it was actually not possible for wheelers to get to classrooms at all, not to mention doctors’ offices (still a problem with many not even having exam tables that accommodate disabled people), government buildings, and all the places normies get to go without thinking about it, such as restaurants, music venues, museums, and so on.
However, I really don’t like the bumpy ramps, which are a trip hazard for most of us. I have difficulty stepping up on a curb, so I need to use those ramps, but I generally go to the side to try and avoid the bumps. My drop foot or my cane or crutch catches on the bumps sometimes and it’s scary. Contractors have now taken up the “if some is good, more is better” philosophy and installed longer ramps across wide expanses of driveways and sidewalk access areas such as shopping centers. I’m on the ADA advisory committee for our city, and we are addressing educating contractors that an area just wide enough for a wheelchair is sufficient. I wish they’d have thought of a safer way to prevent our blind friends in wheelchairs from wheeling out into a street by mistake, but now the requirements are federal law, they just have been implemented more or less on steroids.
Another problem is that many disabled parking spaces have now been moved further away from entrances, to accommodate the incline required for a wheelchair or scooter to safely ascend and descend. Sometimes they have actually been moved across a street or driveway so that disabled people who park there have to navigate traffic in order to get to the entrance of the building (this is true at our local post office, in fact). What should be considered is that with most disabled people not being in wheelchairs, we need at least one close parking space that isn’t necessarily for a wheelchair van with a lift, plus the space at the end of a ramp that has the right incline for a chair. So, frequently, there should be at least two DP spaces at each venue. Distance is a problem when you’re still walking, but with difficulty, or have a hard time with steps.
The ADA rooms in hotels are set up with less furniture and low clothes rack poles to accommodate people who are in wheelchairs, which is wonderful. But I prefer to have a little sofa or chairs if possible where we can both sit (also I am short, so it’s difficult for me to put my shoes on while sitting on a bed where my feet don’t touch the floor, as is also often true of a desk chair). And I only wear long dresses, so they touch the floor when hung in an ADA room with a low pole. So I like to think I am leaving the ADA room free for someone who really needs it, such as my friend who has to use a walker even within her hotel room, and needs to roll herself into the roll-in showers they have in ADA rooms. I slip and fall easily, so I am better off if the shower water is contained and does not get all over the floor, as it can in an ADA bathroom with a roll-in shower. However, I do really like that the ADA showers usually have a seat, because it’s helpful for me to sit for part of the time when I shower; I have a seat in my walk-in shower at home, which we built to accommodate any future need for a wheelchair, and also set up so that the water does not splash out onto the rest of the bathroom floor.
But you can’t have it all while traveling; I take a lightweight, quick drying tub mat with me when we travel and that handles my current shower need. If I get to the point where I must always use a walker, I’ll be thankful to have those ADA hotel rooms!
Okay, let’s play a game of rate that city/place. On a scale of one to five, how would you rate the following places for being friendly and accomodating to people with disabilities:
New York: 3
Washington, DC: 3
New Orleans: 2
San Francisco: 4 (only because of the hills, otherwise, they try to accommodate)
National Parks in the USA: 1-3
Which parks do you find better than average: Yosemite, CA; I’ve heard Yellowstone is great but haven’t been there; Zion, UT. Capitol Reef, UT. Woefully, I have not been to as many national parks as I’d like.
Care to mention a few more: Phoenix and Scottsdale: 1. (They’re FLAT). Berkeley, CA:1 or 2. (The mecca of disability rights.)
I didn’t give any of them a 5, I notice; I think that parts of nearly all large cities have some degree of accommodation these days. I won’t be going to Positano, Italy, or probably not the Greek Isles or Portugal—too many stairs.
No Spring Chicken includes a chapter titled “Scary Stories!” Care to relive a couple for the benefit of our more cautious readers?
Well, being dumped from my wheelchair at the end of a moving conveyer belt ramp by a young man attendant that didn’t know how to get a wheelchair over a bump at the top of the ramp was pretty scary, at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris. Fortunately the people behind us were way far behind, so I had time to get myself up off the floor before the ramp carried them up to the top where they would have smashed into us. It actually was a little comical; I saw myself as in a really ridiculous Marx Brothers movie, but it could have been disastrous, especially if I had been hurt or could not get up from the floor on my own.
They gave all their wheelchair attendants training after that, although they still do not understand that for a disabled person, a quarter or half mile is not “a very short way.” So, here’s another quick story: At that same airport, we were once deposited by a lovely young wheelchair attendant about a half mile from the train station attached to the airport, with baggage, me on crutches, etc., with a “Sorry, I cannot go further,” after we asked if she could take us to the train station. So, in the future, if we were taking a train to the south of France on the same day, we’d leave the airport and take a cab the short ride to the train station.
Can you offer some candid, heartfelt advice to hospitality workers and others who’d like to be more sensitive and helpful to disabled travelers? Do you have a pet peeve or two? If we can generalize, how do handicapped people like to be treated?
When someone makes a hotel reservation and says they have a walking difficulty, immediately assume they cannot be placed at the end of a long hallway. If they actually reserve a room close to the elevator, put a hold on that room and do not let an earlier arrival take the room; my very necessary room has been given away on more than one occasion.
Hostesses at restaurants: if the person has a cane, crutch, or walker, they are probably going to need to walk about half your speed so please just notice that and don’t take off at full speed and leave the customer behind.
Guess those two things qualify as pet peeves!
Handicapped or disabled people like to be treated as normal people who need a little accommodation in order to function normally. So, holding a door open without making a big deal out of it, and without chastising a disabled person for not asking for help, is appreciated. When in doubt, ASK, and keep it quiet and subtle if possible. Shouting “Do you need a special seat?” is not as kind as leaning down to the height of a person in a wheelchair and quietly asking, “Is there anything we can do to accommodate you?” Or even just casually, “Need a hand with anything today?” People stare at us already; we appreciate being accommodated without fanfare. And just because you are older or in a wheelchair does not mean you are demented or deaf.
The general public often overlooks the fact that many disabled people are also in severe pain—which certainly puts a damper on moving about the country, as well as being a serious buzz killer. Chronic pain is diabolical. Personally, how do you cope with pain?
My pain is primarily from arthritis in a few areas (thankfully not everywhere!) and tendon issues, and I experience some nerve pain, especially in my low back from having a two inch limp for seventy years, where my spinal canal has narrowed and the nerve sometimes pinches. Sometimes pain makes my life come to a screeching halt for a half hour up to a day.
To counter this, I do yoga every single darn morning, which alleviates some of the back and tendon pain. What also helps me a lot is pool physical therapy, which I do three to five times a week for a total of an average of three hours a week, year round. Walking, stretches, kicks, arm exercises, more walking, and swimming. I am fortunate to have a pool and the funds to heat it some days in the winter months. There are therapy pools in some cities, but there is often the hassle of getting oneself there with gear, etc., so it has to be ultimately worth the trip. I rest afterward. I try to keep my weight down by not overdoing simple carbs. Being heavy can cause inflammation and also excess pressure on joints.
I use a gel ice pack on areas that flare up, although for arthritis, sometimes heat is better. I used to get a regular massage before the pandemic, and look forward to starting that up at least once a month again.
If an activity hurts, I stop and don’t do it. I take a break.
Sometimes I swear. That apparently gets the fight or flight response going and can actually reduce pain if it’s done at the onset! Sometimes just sitting down and reading a book to escape is the only thing left to do, and maybe tagging on a short nap. Sitting outside or having lunch or tea with a friend, or both at once, can work wonders. Stress can exacerbate pain.
In the book, you offer a great deal of advice to the aging community about things like managing doctors, using assistive devices, making a home safer and more accommodating to your disability, and so on. The main takeaway seems to be “own it!” You encourage readers not to rely on others for their wellbeing. Can you talk about the importance of attitude and self-sufficiency—to the extent possible—that you believe makes a big difference in your life?
I had to be self-sufficient from the time I was three and a half. That’s early to learn that, and I’m not sure it’s a great lesson for a child. But my mom did not want me to be dependent upon her, and also, I believe, thought that no one would ever marry me because of my ungainly limp. She was concerned that I’d be an old maid living in her house for the rest of my life! So she didn’t even teach me to tie my shoes; she said, “Figure it out.” And so the way I tie my shoes is really, really strange, a method designed by a six-year-old.
I had to learn to pull up the lever on the heavy brace I wore for two or three years in order to bend my knee. I often pinched my little fingers on that thing. And I at first had to use little crutches, “Kinney sticks,” named for the Australian nurse who designed them. So just to get out the door and play with other kids, I had some considerable challenges, but was determined after three months in a rehab crib that all I wanted to do was “go” and play. (My first sentence at eight months, prior to polio, was “Baby go bye-bye.” I was really clear what I wanted to do very early on.)
But, I am an advocate for accepting assistance, if offered, and for letting people close to me know what I really need, but we can’t wear people out with constant requests, unless they are paid to care for us or let us know that this is their fondest desire, to serve us. That is going to be rare, and caregiver burnout, even amongst the paid pros, is common.
As is evident, I became a little independent adult a bit too early, so wanting to be self-sufficient is not something I could easily drop. However, I also know that I am responsible for my happiness. And that kind of independence, the commitment to joy and peace for oneself, is probably the ultimate attractive attribute, so perhaps people are more willing to assist a person who has that kind of wholeness. I dunno, just guessing on that point.
No woman is an island, it takes a village, and so on. But also there will never be a person who knows what we need better than ourselves (assuming we don’t have dementia), and I notice that I am the person who is most willing to provide those needs for myself!
More and more, science is understanding the importance of exercise for the young and old and everyone in between. What about for the disabled? Care to share a few tips from your routine?
Exercise prevents heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and floods the body with feel-good endorphins and also prevents inflammation which causes pain and other problems.
Just about anyone can do chair yoga, and there are very good programs on PBS for this, and very good DVDs available; there’s one from the Arthritis Foundation which I’ve used when recovering from surgery or an injury. There is even bed yoga, stretches to do while lying in bed. I say “just about” everyone, because I have a relative deteriorating from ALS, and that is a mean one. People with full paralysis are not going to be able to exercise, either. However, a physical therapist can work limbs and do massage so that pain and cramping can be alleviated.
Since I can (still) get down on the floor, I do yoga and core strengthening every morning, as I’ve mentioned above. Even just a few stretches, such as neck movements and arm circles, can make a person feel better. Just deep breathing with awareness and doing a few gentle stretches while seated can energize you; we had a chair yoga and deep breathing demonstration for our polio group and people felt so much better after even a short session.
If you have access to a pool that is heated to at least eighty-six degrees, walking in the shallow end is marvelous; that’s the only place I can walk easily as the water holds me up. Just don’t overdo it and get to the point of exhaustion or pain. Pain is a message to stop what you are doing.
Lastly, please tell us what’s next for you: in travel, writing, and just day to day activities that keep you entertained and engaged?
I am busier than I probably should be! I have to remind myself not to schedule too much in any one day. Right now, I am up to my ears in alligators with promotional writing assignments and interviews for this new book, No Spring Chicken. The most fun part of this is that we’re going to have a few friends and relatives over to our back yard for my book launch on July 15 at 5:00 PST, now that Marin County has eighty percent of adults and ninety-eight percent of seniors vaccinated against COVID. I will be interviewed by another author friend, Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, and we’ll be doing a video hosted by our local book store, Book Passage, which can be accessed at this link: https://www.bookpassage.com/event/francine-falk-allen-no-spring-chicken-online-event
I believe it will be available on YouTube afterward, though I don’t know for how long. You can go to this link to sign up for a reminder for the event, and also to buy the book!
I am excited to be seeing friends again for lunches, and we’ve been going out to dinner a little bit, although mostly outside so far. We are considering going to Hawaii or New Mexico, both places that have high vaccination rates, in the fall, after I finish promoting my book. Now that some places are safely opening up, I will be checking out possible bookstore venues, probably mostly in the west, where I can do a reading or book signing for No Spring Chicken.
At some point probably later this year or in 2022, I plan to start a creative non-fiction book, possibly to become a novel instead, based on the questionable choices of my maternal grandfather, which affected our family and almost split us apart forever.
Aside from all that, my garden always has things it wants me to do, and the results are a joy, a peaceful and beautiful place to hang out with my husband, our kitty, Leila, and occasionally our friends. We also have tickets for a James Taylor and Jackson Browne concert in late October and are hoping it doesn’t get canceled again!