Life with MS

Traveling with MS: Overcoming Unconscious Bias

By Matt Cavallo

A few months ago, USA Today published an article titled, Travelers need to stop faking disabilities. It's hurting people who do have them. The article points out how some passengers believe people are faking a disability in order to preboard. The article struck a particular chord with me because I often travel for work, and I have been judged because I do not “look” like someone who has a disability. From my experience, the main reason people have a problem with those who preboard with a disability is the lack of overhead space for their carry-on luggage. Most airlines charge to check bags, so people try to save money by stretching the limits of what an acceptable carry-on should be.

Having to check a bag means you will be waiting at the baggage claim after your flights, adding additional time to your trip. Also, checking your bag adds the risk that your luggage might get lost. I’ve heard the saying that life is about the journey, not about the destination. Whoever coined that phrase probably did not have to commute on commercial airplanes for work like I do. On most flights, I do not take advantage of the preboard option because of the unconscious bias that exists. When I do choose to preboard, I feel the stares from not only other passengers waiting in line, but also from some of the flight staff. It is all because of how I look. I’m 6 feet 2 inches, 235 pounds, and in okay shape for my age. I travel in nice clothes because I am usually coming from a work event or a speaking engagement. I do not have a noticeable limp or perceived difficulty wheeling my carry-on. To the naked eye, I might look like someone trying to fake a disability to get to the head of the line.

The truth is, I have had a broken neck that was surgically repaired so it is harder for me to lift my carry-on over my head. I may also seem to walk confidently on flat surfaces, but I have a harder time going downhill when walking on the jetway. There are times where at the end of a long business trip, I just don’t have the strength to wait in line even though I look like I should be able to. This is one of the challenges of living with an invisible illness such as MS. So how do you overcome unconscious bias while traveling? Here are some tips that can help. 

• Know your rights. Federal law protects the right of any traveler who identifies themselves as disabled. Federal law 14 CFR Part 382 Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel states that airline carriers “must offer preboarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.”

• Plan in advance. Your pretrip plans should include booking special assistance at the airport. Call your airline directly to find out what it offers travelers with special needs.

• Communicate your needs. If you’ve done your pretravel prep right, you know what you’re entitled to, and you’ll probably know that better than the people dealing with you. That’s why it’s important to be vocal about what you need. In fact, it can be good to be more open about your condition than usual while traveling.

• Shrug it off. You cannot control others’ stares or judgement. Try to remember that at the end of the flight, you will all go your separate ways. You will never see that person again, so don’t concern yourself with what they think of you.

Sunflowers Bring Travel Assistance for Hidden Disabilities


In 80 airports across the United States and another 100 airports worldwide, a simple pin or lanyard can improve your travel experience. How?

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program encourages travelers who may need extra help and their caregivers to wear a sunflower-patterned accessory. This visual cue discreetly alerts airport staff that you may need extra time or additional support. The program is free, and participating airports will provide lanyards or other accessories free of charge to travelers who self-identify as having a hidden disability or being a caregiver.

When travel planning, visit to locate airports and businesses near your home and destination that support the program. Contact your local participating airport in advance of your travel to request a lanyard or other accessory.

Not just airports

The sunflowers are spreading. Although it started with air travel, the program is now at over 450 universities, schools, and colleges, as well as other sites. You can help spread the Sunflower Program. Go to and click Get Involved.