Death of Disability Advocate Puts Spotlight on Systemic Ableism in Air Travel

United Airlines has been criticized for being unfriendly to customers in recent years. In 2017, United Airlines was the number one airline in the world. infamously used physical forceTo remove a passenger from an airplane after it was overbooked. This injured the man. The company was eventually dissolved. hot water for the death of a giant rabbit named SimonIt was also in trouble due to a flight attendant. forced a passenger to put her pet dog in an overhead storage big, where it died. Even a protest song has been written against the company. “United Breaks Guitars,”Artist who claims his instrument was destroyed by the company

It may be easy to make fun of the corporation’s customer service problems. Yet the recent death of a disability rights activist spurred by the airlines’ alleged destruction of her wheelchair speaks to a deeper systemic ableism in our society — an issue not merely confined to one airline.

Engracia Figueroa, a disability rights advocate at Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, at the age 51, and a few months later, died October 31, 2009. United Airlines workers accidentally damaged her specialized wheelchair. According to Hand in Hand, the destruction of Figueroa’s wheelchair in July was far, far more than an inconvenience. The device was built specifically to accommodate Figueroa’s disability, caused by a spinal injury and leg amputation, and it was hazardous for her to spend too much time without it. After a five-hour wait at the airport, Figueroa discovered that her chair was damaged. She suffered a severe pressure sore and had to be admitted to hospital. Making matters worse, the company at first refused to replace Figueroa’s chair in accordance with the Airline Carriers Access Act, which requires airlines to replace damaged or misplaced assistive devices. Because Figueroa’s chair was motorized, it could have been unsafe or presented a fire hazard if she used it while damaged, and her body required something more specialized than the standard wheelchair they offered her.

Sadly, by the time United finally agreed to get Figueroa an adequate replacement chair, “the months in which they [United] fought against the replacement took a toll on her body,” according to Hand in Hand. “While fighting with United to replace her chair, Engracia was forced to use a loaner chair that was not properly fitted to Engracia’s body.” This exacerbated her pressure sore and led to an infection that spread to her hip bone, eventually leading to her death. (Salon reached out to Hand in Hand and United Airlines for comment on this story; neither replied, although Hand in Hand has been outspoken in supporting Figueroa and United has publicly offered condolences to Figueroa’s family through a statement to The Independent.)

In a number of interviews before she diedFigueroa explained that airlines can damage or destroy mobility devices and cause severe injury to people. “Mobility devices are an extension of our bodies. When they are damaged or destroyed, we become re-disabled,” Figueroa put it, according to Hand in Hand. “Until the airlines learn how to treat our devices with the care and respect they deserve, flying remains inaccessible.”

Her words mirror a 2016 report on flying with disabilitiesPublished in the journal Travel and Tourism Research Association. Based on an analysis of three major Australian domestic airlines, the scholars concluded that “the ‘essence of experience’” for disabled passengers involved “a newly disembodied experience that transformed a person’s impairment into socially constructed disability. The social construction was a product of international air regulations, airline procedures, pressures brought about by the introduction of low-cost airlines into Australia and a new wave of occupational health and safety considerations.”

They could also have been derived from this 2009 study in the Journal of Travel Research: “The findings suggest that participants are confronted with physical and social difficulties, which, for wheelchair users, result in humiliation and physical suffering. Moreover, crew members’ behavior toward people with disabilities indicates the need to train and educate airline employees.”

Experts who spoke with me confirm that these descriptions are accurate, even though they were written many years ago. Public Policy Analyst Claire Stanley at the National Disability Rights Network, for example, used the expression “gate to gate” when describing the mere breadth of adverse experiences that a disabled individual may encounter while attempting to use commercial airlines.

“There have been a lot of unfortunate scenarios involving poor treatment of people with disabilities,” Stanley explained. She described how disabled people with medical devices that set off security metal detectors or are fragile or embarrassing can complain about being treated poorly by security while they are preparing for their flight. Service dogs owners report that they are often confronted by employees who don’t know how to work with them. These problems are obviously very different.

“Going through security for the whole spectrum of disabilities, there is just a lack of training and a lack of respect for doing it with dignity and in a timely manner,” Stanley told Salon. “I’ve heard people with disabilities say they have to go to the airport hours and hours early to get through TSA because if they don’t, they’re never going to make it to their plane on time.” Even after one passes through security, the ordeal of getting on the flight does not necessarily end. Being able to easily move one’s body to the vehicle itself is an ableist privilege, not a universal ability.

“When I say ‘gate to gate,’ you go to the ticket counter to check in and then you get escorted through the airport to your gate,” Stanley observed, adding that this is not always doable for people with disabilities. “The two big groups you hear are people with physical disabilities who need to be pushed through the airport to get to their gate or those of us who are blind or visually impaired getting escorted through the airport to our gates.” Very often, the people who are supposed to do those jobs simply do not know how to do them well.

Passenger troubles can continue even after they are on board an airplane. Even though they don’t have to worry about crew members damaging life-sustaining equipment they need, they should be concerned about the experience they have on the vehicle. The ordeals of wheelchair users are especially visible. report in JuneWe found that airlines have destroyed or lost over 15,000 wheelchairs since 2018.

“In October 2019, a [Paralyzed Veterans of America] member was hand-carried off of an airplane,” Heather Ansley, the Associate Executive Director of Government Relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), told SalonEmail. “Although there was no emergency requiring it, she was informed that allowing individuals to carry her off was the only way for her to deplane. Despite her discomfort, she reluctantly agreed to the procedure. While she was being carried from the aircraft, she was afraid that they would drop her and could feel the struggle of those attempting to assist her.”

PVA members reported other adverse flight experiences. Ansley described a PVA member that had to use the arms from other seats to get to the front of his plane. He was not able to use an aisle chair to transport him to the wheelchair in the jet bridge. Another report said that aircraft personnel allowed him to fall to the ground by talking while he was being removed. One PVA leader was “severely injured” after being dropped while getting transferred to an aisle chair so he could board; the error fractured his tail bone, eventually leading to skin breakdown and a bone infection.

“In general, commercial airplanes are required to meet almost no meaningful access standards for people with disabilities,” Ansley explained. The inside of the plane can pose problems for wheelchair storage and can even be dangerous.

“The interior of the airplane is hostile for those who must board using aisle chairs as the aisle is narrow and many people report banging into armrests as they are dragged to their seat,” Ansley wrote to Salon. “Once on the plane, lavatories are not accessible on the vast majority of single-aisle aircraft, which means that people with disabilities who have mobility disabilities or need assistance in the restroom are not able to use the bathroom on those planes. Thus, they must dehydrate and fast to minimize the chance of an accident.”

Even before a disabled passenger arrives in the airport, they might encounter unfair difficulties due to their disability. A 2010 reportThe journal Government Information QuarterlyIt was tested to see if airlines adhered to Department of Transportation regulations. These regulations state that companies cannot charge a telephone purchase fee for a ticket if the customer has a disability and cannot use the website. Despite this rule, two of the airlines — USAirways and United — practiced discriminatory pricing in more than one-third of the phone calls, even after they were told that they were not supposed to do that. The problem, it appears, goes beyond “gate to gate.” It is a structural flaw in how our transportation infrastructure perceives — or, perhaps more accurately, fails to perceives — people who are differently abled.

“I have yet to see a mode of transportation that is designed for all users ([especially] disabled travelers) at the outset,” Carol Tyson, Government Affairs Liaison, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), told SalonBy email. “Disability activists and advocates have had to fight for every gain — literally laying bodies and lives on the line to get lifts on public buses in the 70’s and 80’s.” Tyson added that if a mode of transportation is not disability-friendly, “we are stuck with them for years (if not decades), and it becomes more costly and sometimes less safe to retrofit.”

The problem with wheelchair accessibility is that American leaders know for years that it is crucial that aircraft can accommodate such a device. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself paraplegic, used an elevator. nicknamed the “Sacred Cow”It was easy for him to board and depart his plane. This machine was a marvellous feat of engineering in the middle 20th century. It did not foreshadow an age in which disabled passengers could enjoy the same experience as those without disabilities. This speaks less to a lack technology and more to structural problems and systemic biases in the development of our transportation infrastructure.

A spokesperson from the Transportation Department said that Salon in a statement, “This account is heartbreaking and adds urgency to the work that we and others in this industry are trying to do to make aviation more accessible.”