The disabled community is, rightfully so, enraged with the death of Engracia Figueroa, a disability activist. United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair, causing her to use a loner which lead to a skin sore that became infected and ultimately led to her death. To find out more (and to sign the petition) click here.
There is no doubt that United Airlines needs to be held accountable for its negligence. But United Airlines is by no means an anomaly. In fact, not a single airline allows users to remain in their chairs when flying, although the technology exists and is sound. What this means is that these extensions of our bodies, our freedom in many ways, are stored and treated as luggage. They are dropped, shoved, and thrown around, often broken and destroyed in the process.
Meanwhile, on the plane, we are forced to transfer to an aisle chair (a very skinny chair that in no way holds a whole human butt with straps that cross over the chest similar to a straight jacket), bumped on the seats as the chair is pulled down the extremely narrow aisle, picked up, and transferred to a seat on the plane. Many cannot sit comfortably in these chairs and so have to improvise a solution as best they can.
We are also the first on and the last off the plane. Ever met the cleaning crew on an airplane? I have many times. Because I am not just the last off. I am the last off and then some as I wait for my wheelchair to be carried up from the depths of Mordor to meet me at the gate. By the time I make it to baggage claim, my lonely bag sits on the floor waiting to be the last claimed.
When I was a teenager, one of my wheelchairs was completely demolished by an airline. They dropped it and severely bent the frame. When they brought it to the gate, they said nothing. While the airlines did eventually buy me a new wheelchair to replace the broken one, the onus was on us to demand it and jump through all their hoops. In the meantime, I was out of a chair.
Luckily, the airlines have not destroyed another of my chairs beyond repair. But every time I travel my chair does get damaged in some kind of way. I just cross my fingers and hope that the damage is minimal.
Whenever I fly, in addition to researching the general accessibility and accommodations of my destination (because accessibility can never be assumed) I always find a place that I can rent a chair from just in case my chair is not drivable when I arrive or doesn’t make it at all. And yes I have used these services before while waiting for my chair to arrive.
My flying stories are just a drop in the bucket of the million other stories about the discriminations and injustices of flying while disabled. I hate that Engracia had to die in order to show the world the reality of flying with a wheelchair. This should never have happened. It is beyond time we change the narrative.