Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Traumatic Brain Injury, Accessibility & Adaptations

Flying with a Wheelchair: The Damage Needs to Stop

Flying has become one of the greatest dangers to wheelchairs for spinal cord injury (SCI) survivors. The social media accounts of wheelchair users from around the world are often lit up speaking of one singular thing: wheelchair damage dealt by baggage handlers when flying. Many wheelchair users are choosing to not stay silent and will call out airlines on social media to demand compensation.

Sadly, however, it seems that no matter what we wheelchair users do — ask the staff to be careful, post "FRAGILE" notes all over the wheelchairs — damage to wheelchairs continues to occur time and time again. There were more than 30,000 disability complaints in 2015 alone to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings. twitter-logo You name it, it likely has happened to a wheelchair. It seems like many baggage handlers have zero respect for wheelchairs, ignoring pleas for careful handling of our expensive mobility equipment. They’re also on a tight schedule, which doesn’t help and can lead to more damage.

But when mobility equipment costs as much as it does — upwards of $25,000 for a power wheelchair — we need to demand that these mass incidences of damage stops. There’s no excuse for such ongoing damage to occur during what should be accessible travel.

An Unfortunate Example

One of the worst incidences I have seen happened to Kenny Salvini, a high-level quadriplegic from Washington state, who had two very expensive power wheelchairs completely trashed by two airlines last year. You can read more about Kenny's experience on his blog.

In Kenny's situation, with no arm movement whatsoever, having his wheelchair damaged was not simply an inconvenience, but a huge life disruption. His life had to be put on hold for months until his wheelchair was successfully repaired. Like he says on his blog, he can make it through if he needs to — and he has. However, it’s a travesty this kind of situation even occurs, especially considering the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which was passed in 1986.

This unprecedented bill was introduced by then-President Ronald Reagan and its main intention was to make air travel more accessible to wheelchair users and people with disabilities. And it wasn't just a bill — it was passed by Congress and signed into law. This law guarantees people with disabilities are treated fairly while traveling by air, and it requires airlines to fully accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities.

The problem is that the language of the law is very broad, which for example, has allowed airlines to bypass making the cabins more accessible. The law requires airlines provide a wheelchair in the cabin as well, but we all know how unstable an aisle chair is. This is why the last five senators introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act of 2017, which essentially aims to clean up the mess that continues to occur within the airline industry. Although this act has not been signed into law, people with disabilities all over the country are hoping it does.

What Wheelchair Users Can Do

Thank God for social media. It can be a very powerful thing, especially when it comes to shaming companies about their poor practices towards customers with disabilities. From Delta to Southwest, they’re all guilty of maltreatment. The time has finally come for travelers who are fed up with the constant battering of their wheelchairs to demand change. Luckily, there are others out there, including politicians, who agree.

Has an airline damaged your chair? How did you manage the situation?

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Tiffiny Carlson

Written by Tiffiny Carlson

Since 1998, Tiffiny Carlson has been a prolific commentator on all things SCI in a number of prominent magazines, blogs and websites. Hailing from Minnesota, she was the SCI Columnist for New Mobility Magazine for 13 years and she currently works as the Executive Director of SPINALpedia, one of the leading websites for people with SCI to share videos and stories. She has been a C5-6 quadriplegic since a diving accident 24 years ago. Tiffiny has also been a fierce advocate for SCI research. In 2016, the Morton Paralysis Fund honored her for her work. While all SCI topics interest her, dating, love and the business of relationships have always been where her passion lies the most.

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