Flying while disabled: Travelers share their challenges with airlines

Jennie Berry faced a seemingly impossible prospect aboard a flight that departed from Newcastle International Airport in England last September. Berry, who is paralyzed from the waist down, had no safe way to get to the lavatory because the plane she was on lacked an aisle chair to transport her.

As a result, the disability activist was forced to drag herself down the aisle and to the bathroom as other passengers looked on.

“It is incredibly degrading and embarrassing for myself to have to go through that,” she said in a video posted to Instagram, adding that a staff member also told her that “disabled people should just wear nappies onboard.”

Stories like Berry’s are not uncommon in the disability community. Anecdotally, activists say that people with disabilities might avoid going on planes completely out of fear of being treated badly or having their wheelchairs damaged. Instead, sometimes opting to travel across the country by car.

“Some people with disabilities just decide it’s not worth it,” said Heather Ansley, executive director of government relations at Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). “Not worth the hassle, not worth the possibilities of what could happen.”

Those fears are not unfounded.

In 2022, airlines reportedly mishandled over 10,000 wheelchairs, leaving them lost, delayed, damaged or stolen, according to data released by the Department of Transportation.

Legislation has been introduced to quell the ongoing issue, but little progress has been made.

The Air Carrier Access Act, which became law in 1986, guaranteed that people with disabilities would receive nondiscriminatory treatment when flying.

The legislation requires airlines to provide additional training to staff and implement accessibility features, including wheelchair-friendly bathrooms on airplanes with two aisles. The rules apply to all airlines operating in the United States.

However, people with disabilities argue that the law doesn’t go far enough.

In recent years, activists have been fighting for the passage of The Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, which would amend the original legislation to allow passengers to sue airlines under the Attorney General’s jurisdiction for violating accessibility guidelines.

It would also establish a higher set of standards to address seating accommodations, lavatories and adequate in-cabin stowage for assistive devices, among other issues experts say make flying more difficult for people with disabilities.

The bill was last introduced in 2021.

Some of the most frequent issues that can arise when flying are lack of training for staff responsible for transferring passengers with wheelchairs, poor communication between staff and customers, small aisles and inaccessible bathrooms.

The latter issue can result in some passengers dehydrating themselves for hours before boarding a plane. It’s a decision Paul Stewart, a veteran in South Carolina, has had to make in the past.

“I’ve done it where I didn’t drink anything the night before,” he said.

Stewart suffers from transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that roughly 33,000 Americans are diagnosed with annually. He contracted the illness in 1987 while serving at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in Port Royal, S.C.

He was in the service for about a month before he became sick. Now, the condition has left him an incomplete paraplegic, meaning that his spinal cord is only partially damaged. He uses a manual wheelchair to get around.

The last time Stewart flew was in January, when he went from Charlotte, N.C. to Miami, Fla.

Some of the difficulties he faced while flying include dealing with untrained staff and instances where his wheelchair has been damaged.

“I have to worry about my body parts falling out of the aisle chairs or being banged into the walls,” he said.

In some cases, flying can have catastrophic consequences.

Charles Brown, national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America, who is quadriplegic, was dropped while being transferred to an aisle chair from his wheelchair in January of 2019.

He sustained a tailbone fracture from the incident, which led to bone infection and a three month stint as an in-patient at a Miami, Fla. hospital.

What shocks Brown is how little anything has changed since the Air Carrier Access Act was enacted.

“We still get our equipment broken, we’re delayed,” he said.

In once instance, Brown said an official threatened to arrest him for refusing to leave an aircraft without his personal wheelchair. He feared falling out of a generic one that might not have been able to hold him in place.

These problems don’t just impact those with mobility issues, activists say.

Claire Stanley, who is blind and works as a public policy analyst for the National Disability Rights Network, said that her community has been plagued by insensitivity.

She’s heard multiple stories of blind individuals being forced to use wheelchairs, instead of being walked to their gate by assistants.

To Stanley, the poor treatment of people with disabilities stems from high turnover of airport staff, leading to a lack of properly trained workers capable of doing the job.

Other solutions proposed by activists include allowing passengers who use wheelchairs to board with their own equipment to protect it from being damaged, making aisles wider and giving people with disabilities the opportunity to sit at the front of the aircraft, where facilities are easier to reach and boarding is swifter.

In July, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he also wanted to see passengers with mobility issues be able to access planes with their own wheelchairs.

“It’s not just better for me. It’s better for every passenger out there,” Brown said.

“It’s a money hit a little bit on the airlines. But come on, you’re telling me that creating a safer flight environment for everybody is not what they want?”

The Reckon Report.
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