“They Lost My Legs”: Disabled People Speak Out About Airline Troubles

Air travel while disabled is the worst. Despite the fact that disabled travelers have civil rights protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), issues with lost or broken wheelchairs and other mobility devices, being denied boarding or given inaccurate information about rights while traveling with wheelchairs, and hostile attitudes from airline personnel abound. No wonder disabled people overall travel less, and have more problems when they do.

Often, the public becomes aware of these issues thanks to a flurry of tweets from a high-profile disabled person, or because some furious tweets receive a signal boost from a celebrity. The end result is frequently little more than a brief article noting that a passenger’s mobility device was lost or damaged. There’s little follow-up to determine if and when the airline paid for replacement or repair, whether someone was compensated for frustration and lost time, and what happened next. These missing pieces of the story, articulating what happened after the incident, are perhaps the most important, because they shed light on how these incidents affect disabled air travelers, and how they reshape their lives to work around disability discrimination on the part of airlines.

The ADA and ACAA are not optional: They are the law. This civil rights legislation, however, is frequently disregarded in both letter and spirit because of disablism. Air travel is no exception to the systemic disregard of disabled people as a legally protected class, but also as humans who have an intrinsic right to engage with society.

Civil rights for the disability community, says Stephanie Woodward, an ADAPT activist and attorney at the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, New York, is about: “The basic concept of treating people with disabilities with respect.” That respect is often denied on land, at sea, and in the air.

A constant low-level airline disaster

Because wheelchairs generally cannot be brought into the cabin of a plane, they usually end up in the cargo hold, where they are treated and classified like luggage. Breakage and loss are not uncommon, and the stress of wondering whether your wheelchair will be there and in good shape at the other end of the trip is considerable. When Woodward flies, she likes to talk to the baggage crew about how to handle her chair, providing them with tips to prevent damage, and she has variable experiences when asking to speak with personnel, even though the conversation would be mutually beneficial for Woodward and the airline.While on her way to Finland for a conference over the summer, Finnair lost Shayla Maas’ manual chair. “They lost my legs,” she said. On an eventful trip with a great deal of travel, she couldn’t afford to be without her chair, but the airline seemed indifferent.Erin Schick, who also uses a manual chair, was forced to fill out a lost baggage claim form when Southwest Airlines lost her chair in the summer of 2016 as she was en route to a poetry slam. A man further down the counter was “yelling” about how the airline had lost a bag with “all his best shoes,” but she had little pity: “They lost my legs. You can live without your best shoes.”

Incidents in which chairs are lost for hours or even days are par for the course for many disabled travelers, but that’s not the only issue. Schick commented that her wheelchair has been scuffed and damaged multiple times, while Woodward noted that on one recent flight, the airline managed to render her chair inoperable by stacking luggage on it. Because Woodward is an attorney with a large Twitter following, she uses the platform to call out airlines when something goes wrong, which tends to get her a faster response.

The clout of a Twitter following also worked for activist Vilissa Thompson recently when an airline lost her chair on the way to the Women’s Conference in Detroit. “I don’t think it dawned on them how much of an inconvenience they caused,” she said, noting that the airline became much more responsive when she and her followers started inundating them with Tweets. This is where, says Thompson, speaking up on social media if you have sufficient clout can be empowering, because it can push everyone, not just the disability community, to demand change.

Airlines are grounding disabled passengers

Woodward has racked up considerable frequent flier miles over a lifetime of work and activism, and takes a regular commuter flight to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with legislators and engage in ADAPT actions. The airline routinely strands her on the tarmac waiting for the “special bus” to take her to the terminal. These delays have become so common that she’s changed the way she schedules meetings, because it’s “embarrassing and unprofessional” to constantly show up late or have to call to reschedule.

Thompson could have missed an important panel on disability inclusion in the women’s movement, while Maas, who had to wait several days for her chair, was stuck with a nearly unusable loaner chair. Schtick had a similar experience, feeling trapped in her hotel room waiting for the return of her chair while using an uncomfortable loaner, missing out on opportunities to spend time with colleagues and friends.

All four women note that damage to wheelchairs isn’t necessarily covered by insurance, and that there are limits on how often chairs can be replaced. Some, like Woodward, can afford to pay out of pocket for repairs and then hound the airline until they receive reimbursement, but that’s not an option for everyone.

Karen, a wheelchair user, says she’s so afraid of airlines causing damage that she doesn’t even fly anymore. Consequently, she’s curtailed her travel for events. And when a family emergency arose, a friend loaned her a chair designed for travel, but it was uncomfortable and difficult to use. Rather than focusing on the death of a family member, she was worried about staying safe in the loaner chair, and what might happen if the airline lost it. “Damaging my chair is the same as damaging a piece of me,” she says.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The law is clear about accommodating disabled people, but, Woodward says, the lack of respect in society in general translates to disabled airline passengers as well. “There are things airlines could be doing to ensure that wheelchairs don’t break that they just don’t do,” she says. Her heart sinks when a gate agent treats her with disrespect — or, as recently happened, when a pilot gets on the intercom to announce to the whole flight that the plane is running late because of “wheelchairs” even though she and her fellow travelers arrived on time and followed airline recommendations like providing advanced notice, arriving early for check-in, and providing information about the operation of their chairs. “That was an awkward several hour flight,” she says, wryly.

Providing accurate training for airline personnel would be a start, she says, creating standards and procedures for employees. Simple measures like setting brakes properly and not using chairs as luggage stacking platforms would certainly be beneficial. That’s not enough, though — airlines have to care, and have to be willing to work with disabled passengers. The onus is on them to ensure that passengers and their mobility equipment arrive safely, and that disabled passengers are treated with courtesy and respect throughout the process. Disabled people shouldn’t be forced to plan their careers and lives around fears that an airline will lose their “legs.”

Storyteller Noah Seidel shares the troubles airlines cause for disabled passengers.

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s.e. smith is a writer and agitator based in Northern California, focusing on social justice, with a particular interest in disability rights, trans issues, and rural subjects. smith’s work has appeared in publications like Pacific Standard, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, In These Times, and Vox. You can follow smith on Twitter @sesmith.