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Flying with a disability

I recently traveled on a commercial airline for the first time in 14 years. Due to a knee injury, my doctor recommended using a cane when climbing stairs or walking more than a few feet. In order to travel on an airplane, I made use of the airline’s disability services. Most importantly, I needed the use of a wheelchair in order to navigate the check-in and security screening process.

The kindness of strangers made its impression. People stood aside to make room for me. They noticed the cane and offered their help. If I were to need it permanently, it might bother me that people looked at the cane instead of me. Nevertheless, I’m not likely to need it forever, so I’m still seeing the experience through the lens of migraine.

Would the airline have been as accommodating if I’d been coping with a migraine attack? I still wouldn’t be able to walk long distances or stand in line for hours. In fact, a migraine attack disables me far more than an injured knee. Would kind strangers take notice? Would they help me navigate the light rail station or offer to carry my bags?

I think we all know the answers.

Not a single person would notice or care unless I vomited on their shoes. That’s the trouble with an invisible illness. Without the outward signs of impairment, few people would recognize the subtle cues of a migraine attack. That is a blessing and a curse…okay, mostly a curse.

Migraine can be just as disabling as paraplegia. The symptoms can feel like torture. It would be nice, if just for one day, there were enough outward signs to help strangers understand. If it were possible, I wonder what physical signs would be enough, particularly between attacks. There are already so many visible signs. Maybe it’s just a matter of teaching people what to look for.

What are some of the visible signs of a migraineur, even between attacks? Please share in the comments!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Juneleaves
    5 years ago

    I’m disabled due to a long a varied history of intractible migraines. By all appearances, on my good days, I look like a normal, athletic healthy 43 year old woman. On my bad days I appear much the same except spaced out and perhaps distracted and “pained.” People who know me can usually tell right away what’s going on. I’ll admit, I’ve gotten pretty good at putting on a friendly and polite affect to strangers even when feeling awful, but it wasn’t always this way. Since they don’t know me, they might assume by my expression that I’m dour and unfriendly. I’ve found overtly deferential politeness goes a long way, despite it being a struggle. Such as, ” I know you are really busy, but here’s the situation, can you help me with x, y or z?”

    More and more, the times I have flown with a bad migraine have, despite being miserable, uncomfortable and occasional very drugged adventures, haven’t been all that terrible. I’ve found that by simply and very politely asking those mobile cart valets or airline stewards for assistance, most have been extraordinarily helpful. A few times I’ve been offered an empty seating section so I can albeit awkwardly lay down during the flight. I suppose my face tells the story alone. In all honesty after living with this illness for 35 years I don’t want sympathy or pity. It’s stinks it’s true, and migraines have nearly ruined many trips, but it’s up to me to advocate for myself despite appearing relatively normal.

    I only ask if I truly need it. I asked once ahead of time for a wheelchair upon landing and was obliged no problem and another time during a layover was able to be put on a later flight. I find most, though not all, people enjoy being helpful in the world.

    On the other hand, during my late 30’s when I was at my absolute sickest and I had to leave an awesome job, I did feel pretty darn sorry for myself. It’s taken a lot of practice but a bit of honey surely does attract the kindness of strangers whereas sour grapes did not. Living and accepting disability has been quite the process.

  • Douglas
    5 years ago

    I have it a bit easier in this regard, I have hemiplegic migraines which exhibit stroke symptoms, as a result my migraine episodes generally have outward displays. I have had people ask if i needed them to call 9-1-1 for me, while very frustrating, it also reaffirms my faith in humanity [but only a little bit :-)]. The down-side to the external symptoms is that I am sometimes treated as an invalid, or patronized — even by medical personnel. When the fog lifts, the look of shock on many of their faces is priceless.

  • ChristieS
    5 years ago

    Obviously, migraine is usually an invisible illness. Mine are almost always opthalmic migraines, and my right eye (where they are located 90% of the time) will get very red and watery. Of course, my husband can tell after all these years when I have a migraine – even when I am starting the prodrome phase. Along with the watery eye, I struggle to find the right words when I try to speak, among other things. It’s doubtful that anyone else would notice.

    One of the scariest things that happened was quite recently. We were at a rock concert that was held outdoors – standing room only Festival style. It was hot and humid. We were allowed to bring only one unsealed bottle of water into the venue and no outside food. We got there early to get a good spot and were right up against the stage.

    When the opening act began, the crush of people started moving forward, and we were literally hip to hip, chest to back with thousands of people. Being clear in front, the vendors walking around selling water and other drinks couldn’t get to where we were. My husband was concerned and kept a close eye on me. It’s a good thing, as about 10 minutes later, I was on the ground, passed out. I had experienced a sharp ice pick pain in my eye warning of an imminent migraine along with effects of dehydration.

    Luckily, being in front, security was there in a flash, and had EMT’s lift me over the fence separating us from the stage and straight to the medical tent I went.

    An hour in there, 5 bottles of water later with cool fans blowing on me and semi darkness, and I was good to go to catch the main act.

  • theovenbird
    5 years ago

    Most illnesses are invisible. I don’t think I would prefer obvious outward signs and I think there definitely are signs if people look closely.

    Once when catching a bus when newly arrived in Costa Rica, I didn’t have a migraine but was overheated and quite stressed, I had multiple people offer me a seat and water, and ask me if I was okay in several languages. I was quite surprised by their concern.

    However, another time, taking the subway in Paris, I had one of the worst migraines of my life, which I was sure was visible in my face and mannerisms, yet no one offered me a seat.

  • Emily A
    5 years ago

    People say my personality changes. That I’m disconnected with life. That’s their first way they can tell. Second is my eyes puff up like they are trying to shut out the light themselves!

  • penina
    5 years ago

    I always get wheelchairs in airports now because of migraine and fibro (these are both 24/7 for me) and they’re invisible except for the sunglasses. I’ve never been questioned or asked why I need a wheelchair (actually I think asking might be an ADA violation), I have had bad experiences at airports and with flying. But not because someone questioned whether or not I actually needed a wheelchair.

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