Need to travel while temporarily disabled? Here's how to make it easy on yourself--at least in Colorado.*

*Basic guidelines should apply to all states and airports.

There’s a certain level of dread that comes from an orthopedist’s follow-up visit that begins with the doctor stating, “You’re not going to like me very much.” There’s yet an additional level that comes when—after said doctor prescribes six weeks of crutches to avoid ankle surgery on an overuse injury—the news comes four days before you’re set to travel solo to a work conference.

“But, wait,” I protested. “I’m supposed to fly to a dude ranch in Montana this weekend.”

“Guess you won’t be riding any horses,” he said, smiling with pity. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

While I detested his message as much as I did those crutches by the end of what I called my “6-week incarceration,” there was one surprising perk: Traveling with an injury was a breeze. From parking nearest an entrance to cutting lines for security and boarding, I have never felt more pampered as a traveler. Here’s how you, too, can ensure an easy airport experience while temporarily disabled.

obtain a Temporary Handicap Placard

I’ve always tried to stay in shape—hence the overuse injury—so I was shocked at how hard it was for me to use crutches despite that. It’s not only that during the first week of use my triceps ached and underarms chafed, but I also stopped often to catch my breath from the effort. So it was a no brainer to get a temporary disabled parking permit before my trip.

In Colorado, to obtain a short-term, temporary (red) placard for your car’s rearview mirror, you must complete Form DR2219, available at your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or, very likely, at your doctor’s office. In my case, I called ahead to the orthopedist’s office requesting they fill out their portion that legally verified my disability. Then I completed my portion before submitting the form to the DMV.

That free, 90-day placard was the rare bright spot while I was on crutches because it allowed me close-up parking at even the busiest of places, including the airport.  

Contact the Airline for Handicap Services

Ordering a wheelchair to get through Denver International Airport (DIA) was as simple as limping to the airline check-in counter. And that’s how it should be, says DIA Spokesperson Heath Montgomery.

“It is the primary responsibility of your airline to make any special passenger accommodations, regardless of the disability,” he says.

As soon as the ticket agent saw my crutches, she ordered assistance and was quickly on my way to security via wheelchair. I felt like royalty, being ushered to the front of the security line and doted on during my private security screening, and heading to the front of the boarding line. “Excuse me, people,” I felt I should announce. “Princess Heather coming through!”

The only problem? I felt horribly guilty that I—a typically healthy, 41-year-old soccer mom—was being wheeled around by 79-year-old Ella, a beautiful and spry wheelchair agent, who escorted me happily through North America’s largest airport (by property size, 53 square miles).  

“This doesn’t feel right,” I said, smiling up at her. “I should be wheeling you around.”

Which leads me to assuaging that guilt: Wheelchair agents can accept tips. So I bought her coffee and handed her a bit of cash as I boarded the plane, grateful that my journey to the jetway was so easy.   

DIA does follow the federal guidelines for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Montgomery says, and even staffs an in-house ADA coordinator. But to start, he says, “You should absolutely reach out to your airline to get you to your gate or whatever else is really needed.”

Take others’ help

The very qualities that led to my injury—determination and stubbornness, among others—are precisely what made it hard for me to depend on others for six weeks. But there’s no denying the obvious: You’ll need help if you’re traveling while temporarily disabled.

Against my mother’s objections, for instance, I drove myself to the airport. (Luckily my left ankle was the injured one, so I could still drive an automatic vehicle.) That meant packing my laptop and purse items in a small backpack, and clothing in a larger backpack, both of which I could transport myself (albeit clumsily). But that’s where my independence ended.

While my natural instinct was to fumble to open a door without help or get my own food, others tended to scramble toward my pathetic efforts. It was if I bore a sign stating, “Please leap out of your seat and fuss over me.” And while the attention embarrassed this I’ll-do-it-myself gal, I gave up rebuffing the offers. Yes, you hold my bag for me. Sure, I’ll let you lug my backpacks to my car.

It was clearly a lesson in humility for me but also one in the kindness of others. And the fact is that traveling while temporarily handicapped was so easy I joke that I’ll rent my boot and crutches to friends for their next trip. Ultimately, I learned to appreciate what little I could while on crutches because, after all, when will I ever again have people waiting on me—I can’t help myself—hand and foot.

For DIA questions, call customer service at 303-342-2000 or text 720-370-9002. There’s a real, live person monitoring those texts around the clock, Montgomery says, so you should receive a fairly quick response. “Almost anything you can think of, they’ll know the answer,” he says. “And if they don’t, they’ll find out.”