When her wheelchair was badly damaged during her flight on Delta Airlines from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Newark, New Jersey, model and influencer Bri Scalesse went to TikTok and recorded a video that quickly went viral. “Today I was stripped of my freedom and independence,” she said. “I don’t know how to live my life.”
Hardly anyone looks forward to air travel. But for wheelchair users, flying is not just an inconvenience; it can be devastating.
Airlines lost or broke 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters in 2019.
In 2018, 36,930 disability-related complaints were submitted to airlines. Airlines lost or broke 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters in 2019, that’s more than 1 in 100 they handle, but little was done to address the problem. A disability rights group called All Wheels Up is now trying to change that by campaigning for the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., And Rep. Jim Langevin, DR.I. The law would require new aircraft to meet accessibility standards and existing aircraft to make changes to accommodate disabled passengers.
According to a 2020 report by the Ministry of Transport, around 29 disabled travelers see their wheelchairs damaged by airlines every day.
No data is available before 2019 as airlines were not required to report or track how many wheelchairs they had previously lost or damaged. “My wheelchair is my freedom, part of me,” Scaless told MSNBC. “I was devastated.”
Because wheelchair damage or loss is so common, flying is not a privilege that extends to the disabled community. “Eighty percent of wheelchair users do not fly because of physical harm or loss of their wheelchair due to damage,” said Michele Erwin, founder and president of All Wheels Up. Your organization is committed to ensuring that wheelchair users “maneuver themselves into the aircraft in dignity and safety” and “make air travel fully accessible to millions of people who use wheelchairs worldwide”.
It is about respecting human rights – but also about recognizing the disabled community as consumers.
Along with the organization’s vice president Alan Chaulet, Erwin says she managed to get airlines to report the number of mobility devices they are at risk and to commit to making flying accessible to people with disabilities.
Both Erwin and Chaulet emphasize that it is about respecting human rights – but also about recognizing the disabled community as consumers. “Flying is tough, but thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) most travel destinations are accessible and many more around the world,” said Chaulet. “People with disabilities have money to spend”
Not only are airlines losing money on wheelchair repairs, replacements, flight refunds, and offering future travel vouchers to disgruntled disabled travelers; You are also missing out on the business of potential customers who stay away from the flight for fear of becoming another headline.
And it’s not just wheelchair losses and damage, but delays like the one that forced disability rights activist D’Arcee Charington to crawl out of a Delta flight in 2015. The toilets on airplanes are inaccessible for people with the most mobility problems. While trains and buses are forced to comply with the ADA and provide accessible wheelchair spaces and toilets, airplanes have been exempted from complying with the law as they still comply with the Air Carrier Act (ACA), which was passed in 1986 before ADA enrolled in law.
While some airlines seem interested in All Wheels Up’s research, education, and training programs, the pace of chance is slow. “You are taking these steps,” Erwin said of the airlines. “I just wish they would take more aggressive steps … Unfortunately, we are still a few years away from introducing wheelchair space on airplanes.”
That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not approved wheelchairs on flights. All Wheels Up claims that it is the only organization that funds and conducts crash test studies on wheelchairs to make this certification a reality.
Erwin also stated that most airlines do not have an evacuation strategy for disabled travelers during emergency landings. “There is no plan for you if you are a disabled traveler,” she said. “If you are someone with limited mobility, it is only recommended that flight attendants literally carry you off the plane.”
Most airlines do not have an evacuation strategy for disabled travelers in the event of an emergency landing.
All Wheels Up offers disabled travelers a tool called ADAPTS, which stands for A Disabled Passenger Transfer Sling, which can help transport a disabled passenger in an emergency. The sling was designed by an anonymous flight attendant. Erwin hopes the airlines integrate them so that the disabled community doesn’t bear the burden of figuring out how to survive an emergency landing.
Since the start of the program in January 2021, 30 ADAPTS slings and special care straps (an additional double shoulder strap for safe boarding of passengers with disabilities) have been issued. Erwin says she is waiting for grants to go through her waiting list of disabled travelers who have applied for the devices.
To get the tools for free, travelers with disabilities must email firstname.lastname@example.org with their name, email address, home address, phone number and age explaining why they wanted the tool to be one a safer flight experience.
All Wheels Up supports all of its work through donations and organizes a virtual 5K marathon fundraiser. You also have a petition with the FAA for wheelchair spaces to be provided on airplanes.
When it comes to air travel, as is so often the case, the feeling that disability is not a priority. “It’s ridiculous that airlines can safely transport dogs and other pets under the aircraft to keep them alive, but unable to fail to break wheelchairs, which are inherently durable,” Dylan Bulkeley Cranes , Disability Rights Coordinator at Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign told MSNBC.
“Airlines can also transport larger luggage such as skis or surfboards without any problems, but they do not develop clear protocols to keep wheelchairs safe during transport.”
The fact that a passenger can board his flight with his duck but not his wheelchair should make us all ashamed of the ableist laws that still rule the aviation industry.
“We don’t want to be afraid to fly, to travel, to experience joy,” said Scalesse. “The way the aviation industry handles and stores chairs needs serious changes,” she said. “I want my chair to be treated as an extension of my body.”
Wheelchairs are not a luxury item, they are a lifeline. Forcing disabled travelers to disconnect from their wheelchairs is like forcing them to lose a part of themselves. And it should not be the job of disabled passengers to ensure that they are treated as such.