Remember the disabled guy who was forced to crawl down the aisle of a domestic airliner and across the tarmac to get to his wheelchair? You’d think that, by now, airlines would have vastly improved their procedures for disabled passengers and their wheelchairs, yet frustrating inconveniences and mobility equipment mishandled by airline personnel seem to be getting worse.
True, there are many inconveniences when traveling on airlines these days—some of which are annoying to all passengers, like the restrictions placed on electronic devices. However, most passengers don’t rely on their electronic devices for their day-to-day necessities.
For most, electronic devices are a luxury and a convenience. They may perhaps have a degree of necessity for professional reasons, but losing your smart phone isn’t going to result in your being unable, for example, to do something like going to the restroom.
Today, the problem is worse for people with disabilities who rely upon their electronic devices for mobility, and airlines have been woefully mishandling wheelchairs for some time now, stranding disabled people who rely on heavily on the devices for their day-to-day activities. While people without disabilities will throw fits over mishandling of their electronics, people in wheelchairs are often and egregiously dismissed as this being the cost of doing business.
In March 2012, Yomi Wrong, executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, Calif., was stranded for over an hour when an airline mishandled and lost her electronic wheelchair. When the airline finally did return her chair (which, like many wheelchairs, was built to address Ms. Wrong’s specific concerns and cost a whopping $26,000), Ms. Wrong discovered that the device had been broken. Worse, the airline refused to help her fix the broken components due to liability concerns.
Marilyn Golden of the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, says, “It’s an outrage that we have been fighting for decades. We fought to get a law which was passed in 1986, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA, which prohibits discrimination against disabled persons). We fought to get regulations issued that were strong. And we have fought to get those regulations implemented and enforced.”
She goes on to say, “Every law, particularly civil rights laws, needs strong enforcement to be effective. This law has weak enforcement, and that’s one big reason why we don’t see a resolution.”
While most airlines are willing to pay for the repair costs of damaged devices, the issue is more complex. Repairs can sometimes require weeks of waiting during a difficult and complex process. All this time, the wheelchair’s user is stranded. In addition, if the device is an older model, the airline may cite this as a rationale for not paying the entire cost. Worse, some wheelchair users are forced to pay the repair costs out of pocket and then await reimbursement, an issue that creates undue financial burden on some people with disabilities, who already bear extensive medical costs on a constant basis.
“It’s beyond inconvenience, it’s completely disabling,” says Wrong. “If my chair is in pieces, if it doesn’t work, if the electronics malfunction and they give it to me in pieces, that’s more than inconvenient. I think it’s criminal.”
Airlines need to come up with a better means of following the regulations put forth in the ACAA instead of treating wheelchairs like any other piece of luggage to be hauled onto a conveyor belt. More training and better procedures for stowing wheelchairs as cargo need to be implemented to avoid situations like this in the future. Do you have an airline nightmare you’d care to share?