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Airline Treatment of Wheelchair Users: An Uphill Struggle

“The ordinary daily life that non-disabled Americans too often take for granted: the right to ride a bus or a train, the right to any job to which we are qualified, the right to enter any theater, restaurant, or public accommodation. The passage of this legislation will make it clear that our government will no longer allow the largest minority group in the United States to be denied equal opportunity. To do any less is immoral.” - Judith Heumann, American disability rights activist, quoted from Netflix Documentary Crip Camp 2020. 


In 1990, the ADA, The Americans with Disabilities Act civil rights law was passed, which prohibited disabled individuals from being discriminated against in employment, transportation, schools, and other areas of public life. However, we still have a long road ahead because this protection did not extend to air travel. Many disabled people who use wheelchairs experience distress at the fact that wheelchairs are being damaged by airlines when they travel. Unfortunately, the journey within the airport is altogether distressing as well. This paper is going to discuss the different struggles that disabled people go through, especially concerning wheelchair accommodations when going to the airport. 


The beginning of this uncomfortable journey starts with airport security. Reports of disabled people feeling uncomfortable and dehumanized at the security check lines, where many are patted down because they cannot go through a scanner or are inappropriately treated, such as being yelled at for audio processing delays, are found in autistic people. According to Emily Ladau in Vice New’s video, “Flying Has Become Hell for Passengers with Wheelchairs,” she states the indignity she experiences when going into an airport, “every time I go through security, I’m essentially turned into a bit of a sideshow.” She explains her uncomfortably with the invasive pat-downs and the shouting of “female assist,” which anyone can witness. When arriving at the gate, she is dehumanized by the gate agents whenever they shout that they have the first to get the wheelchair into the plane. She feels like she is “this big piece of inconvenient machinery that they have to get on the plane” and not a person. 


Premeditated measures are taken when boarding a plane for wheelchair users. Not too long ago, Niamh Ni Hoireabhaird described her experience with onboarding Ryanair airlines, where wheelchair users are boarded last on the plane and then carried, for many to see, onto a chair. This is an embarrassing experience. According to Hoireabhair’s inquiry to Rynair, “local law” prohibits “special assistance passengers on board” while fueling is taking place. So, for this reason, they are boarded last. However, in an inquiry to a flight attendant about this, they have stated their common procedure is to board wheelchair users first and have them disembark last when all passengers have exited. This means that the policy is different per airline and there is no universal rule. There are also typically no accessible bathrooms once aboard the airplane. For this reason, many don’t drink beforehand, or if the flight is more extended, Theo Donelly, a Higher Education professional who uses wheelchairs, says he has to resort to urinating in bottles. Although, an anonymous flight attendant I interviewed stated that there are wheelchairs on board each aircraft and that there are “adapted” bathrooms where you have to remove a section of a wall between two bathrooms. 


Furthermore, wheelchair users must go through this complicated, anxiety-inducing nightmare when getting onto an airplane. Raphael, a friend of mine and a mobility scooter owner, is familiar with this similar experience of an untrained staff dealing with disabled people and their needs. He explained to me his stress-filled journey of making sure his mobility scooter would arrive safely. On July 3rd, 2022, Raphael boarded a Lufthansa Airline plane in Montreal, Canada, to Berlin, Germany, where there would be a stop at Frankfurt. In Montreal, he was notified that his mobility scooter would be waiting at “the plane’s door for your stopover” in Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, Raphael started to get worried; he asked staff where his scooter was and was met with, “don’t worry, there are flights to Berlin every hour if you miss this one,” insinuating that he would have to miss his flight to Berlin. Then he is told that they wouldn’t have it at the stopover but in the container of the plane with all the other luggage. When Raphael insisted on making sure his mobility scooter would be fine, knowing the horror stories of other wheelchair and scooter users, he was told to “talk to the pilot.” This is a dismissive comment that many disabled people in airports often experience. Furthermore, Raphael’s sister and an assistant tried to ask for confirmation about the scooter’s whereabouts, which was met with an unprofessional response. The attendant yelled, “I don’t know, they haven’t started loading yet! Come back in 20 minutes!” So Raphael and his sister boarded the plane, weary about the scooter’s security. Once arriving in Berlin, they waited for 2 hours to obtain his mobility scooter, where retrieval was also tricky. They were sent to the plane’s gate first and then to another area of the airport, where they met another equally disappointed wheelchair user who had to wait 30 minutes to retrieve their wheelchair. After waiting for another hour and 30 minutes because his mobility scooter was labeled as “heavy luggage,” he regained his scooter only to have the seat position and steering wheel moved, which Raphael explicitly instructed that this couldn’t be done. Although there wasn’t any damage, Raphael’s experience at the airport is a common anxiety many wheelchairs and mobility scooter users have due to the long wait times and terrible service. 


Unlike most buses and other forms of transportation in the United States, airplanes have not been the primary target for ADA protections. So there aren’t many accommodations for wheelchair spaces in airplanes. Instead, most wheelchairs are loaded in the cargo with all the other heavy luggage and bags. Due to this, there are no protections when it comes to wheelchair damage. According to the US Department of Transportation, airlines mishandle 1.5% of mobility devices annually, and according to USA Today, in Oct 2022, 1,092 of 72,085 wheelchairs and scooters were abused. 


So far, airlines weren’t legally required to report damages to wheelchairs and scooters until Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth passed the FAA Reauthorization Act in 2018. According to the 2022 Air Travel Consumer Report, the two American airlines with the highest mishandling rates are Spirit airlines at 5.04%, Jetblue Airways at 5.27%, and PSA airlines at 2.81% for October.


The horror doesn’t end here when it comes to the injustices that disabled people confront. There was a case in which a disability activist named Engracia Figueroa died due to United Airlines destroying her custom wheelchair and replacing it with a rented wheelchair which did not adequately support her back and weight distribution. This caused Ms. Figueroa to develop a skin ulcer that became infected and gastrointestinal issues. Earlier in 2021, she reported to USA Today that “My wheelchair is custom-made for me and my spinal cord injury. It’s a $30,000 machine that is not easy to replace, and without it, I am now stuck at home.” This is an injustice that shouldn’t continue to occur. 


However, some positive changes are being made in the industry. There are companies like All Wheels Up that are testing out affordable ways in which new technology can incorporate custom wheelchairs into the airplane without having to displace any seats. Moreover, the Air Carrier Access Act of 2021 Air Carrier Access Act of 2021 which helped replace Ms. Figueroa’s chair and has made significant strides in ensuring “better stowage options for assistive devices.” However, as with Ms. Figueroa’s case, there need to be more options and alternative compensation when custom wheelchairs or scooters are damaged. 


Although ADA has come a long way in implementing more accessible pathways and granting better access in other areas of life for disabled people, Americans still have a long way to go. Other countries also face a similar uphill struggle for disability rights that is worth fighting. It seems that the strides toward improvement have been slow, but it does look promising with the advocacy, legislation, and awareness about this issue.

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Tags: #wheelchairs #wheelchairdamage #airports #disabilityrights


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