Frequent Flier: Kerri Vanderbom

Written by Madoline Markham
Photo by Beau Gustafson

Kerri Vanderbom is no stranger to air travel. As a member of the Lakeshore Storm wheelchair basketball team out of the Lakeshore Foundation, she’s off to Florida and Texas with a dozen team members for tournaments in the winter. As a part of her work as a researcher with the UAB Department of Physical Therapy, she flies to conferences or training once or twice a month. Even outside of those realms, she and her husband, Derek, frequently travel to see their family in Northern California and to compete in water ski competitions.

Traveling in a wheelchair looks the same as that for an able-bodied person in many ways, but several steps are different. Instead of going through a metal detector in security with a metal wheelchair, both she and her chair must be manually patted down, and you never know when that might take extra time. “There’s a lot of little things you have to keep in mind,” Vanderbom says. “Sometimes you are tired and you just want to get to your destination.”

People with disabilities are usually the first ones on the plane and the first ones off. At check in, they have to get a special tag for their wheelchair that notes any current damage, and then it gets checked at the gate much like a stroller would. After you land, you have to wait for your wheelchair to be delivered and make sure it hasn’t incurred any damage before you deplane. “It varies by airport whether they are good at knowing what to do with someone with a wheelchair,” Vanderbom says.

Vanderbom, who moved to Birmingham from Oregon in 2013, says the Birmingham airport is good at working with people with disabilities, in part, she thinks, because so many come to Lakeshore in addition to the general population. Lakeshore has also worked with the airport to train staff in this arena as well.

Vanderbom is all the more attuned to airport setups since she researches how to adapt health promotion programs to be inclusive for people with disabilities. While she has a manual wheelchair, she says people with power chairs face even more planning and preparation for air travel, as do people who are blind and/or have service dogs.

She takes notice of things like the helpfulness of having an accessible bathroom that’s clearly marked, or better yet one with multiple wheelchair stalls because people traveling with luggage like to use the wheelchair stalls. heights are too tall for them. “Seeing those things are always really nice,” Vanderbom says.