Airlines a Disadvantage to the Disabled
Written by FreddyFred on October 18, 2013
Imagine the next time you take a flight, you are asked to turn over your electronic devices. That’s right, your laptop, tablet and smart phone. And when you arrive at your destination they are given back to you broken into pieces. You wouldn’t tolerate this, would you?
This is exactly what people traveling with motorized wheelchairs deal with every day. The only difference is that their wheelchairs are electronic devices that provide their mobility. Without them, they are stuck
That’s what happened in March 2012 to Yomi Wrong, executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, Calif., when she flew from California to Florida for a conference. After landing, she was left on the plane for an hour while the airline tried to locate her motorized wheelchair. When it finally was brought to her, the headrest and backrest were broken off and lying on the seat. No one from the airport or the airline would help Wrong try to fix her chair, citing liability concerns.
“It goes to a lack of awareness and effective training. Ultimately this amounts to discrimination to one group of passengers, people with disabilities.” says Wrong.
Like most such wheelchairs, Wrong’s is made to meet her specific needs and not interchangeable with other wheelchairs. Without any tools, Wrong tried to screw the pieces back in place and used bungee cords to help hold the chair together. Delayed by several hours, she missed several conference events. After her return to California, the airline finally repaired her damaged chair.
“This chair costs $26,000 — more than some people pay for a vehicle. When you hand your keys over to a valet you don’t expect that they’re going to crash your car and not take responsibility for it and that’s what happens to us,” says Wrong.
Beyond breakage, many times there is damage undetectable by the human eye that may cause the electrical systems to malfunction and even cause physical harm.
“It’s an outrage that we have been fighting for decades,” says Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley. “We fought to get a law which was passed in 1986, the Air Carrier Access Act (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.”
Golden says it’s the responsibility of the Department of Transportation to oversee and enforce this law. “Every law, particularly civil rights laws need strong enforcement to be effective. This law has weak enforcement and that’s one big reason why we don’t see a resolution.”
DOT regulations cover airlines’ obligations in the handling of various types of wheelchairs. In 2011 The Department of Transportation proposed a new rule requiring airlines to report more information specific to mishandled wheelchairs. According to the DOT this filing still is under review. Under current regulations, airlines do have to file an annual report with the DOT on all disability-related complaints they receive. The DOT offers a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report summarizing disability-related complaints against airlines filed with the DOT by passengers.
Most airlines do pay for any repairs needed, but the process isn’t an easy one and not always speedy. Many times there is a wait for repair appointments, sometimes several weeks. If a chair is an older model, the airlines may not cover the full amount. And in some cases, consumers face the financial strain of having to pay for repairs and wait to be reimbursed.
Meanwhile, without their mobility, their lives can be halted. They may not be able to get to work or to medical appointments.
Advocates for the disabled say airlines should install systems to properly lift and stow wheelchairs with cargo, as opposed to sending them up the conveyor belt like luggage. Wrong says that employees and ground crews also need training on the proper handling of wheelchairs.
“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.”