Wheelchair users face barriers to access, damaged equipment when traveling

Apprehension is expected before a traveler boards a flight, whether it’s anxiety about airline safety or worrying about a delayed flight. 

Yet for people who depend on wheelchairs to move through the world, the possibility of damage to their chairs poses the biggest stressor of them all. Wheelchairs aren’t just an object or item to be checked like a suitcase for a flight; they are an extension of the user and a vital part of their daily lives.

Once a user has boarded a plane, their wheelchair usually is loaded into the baggage area of the plane. The chairs may be disassembled or damaged in the process. Power chairs can be expensive; custom machines can cost upwards of $20,000. 

Image of baggage at airport

Dot Nary, assistant research professor at the Life Span Institute’s Research and Training Center on Independent Living (RTC), is among many people who have experienced the challenges of mishandled wheelchairs.

“Once we went to Washington D.C., and the joystick on a person’s power chair was just totally bent over,” Nary said. “The more severely disabled you are, the more you need a custom chair, so this person’s replacement chair didn’t fit her and she was basically confined to her hotel room the whole time.”

Nary has seen her own chair and those belonging to colleagues dismantled and loaded onto the plane piece by piece with no labels on the parts. Upon arrival at one destination, Nary carefully checked her chair and realized her colleague’s chair had been put together with Nary’s wheels.

“Wheelchair users will never have equal opportunity to participate in travel for work, recreation, and other purposes if they have to risk their mobility due to airline negligence,” Nary said. 

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), whose own chairs have been damaged by airlines, spearheaded legislation that took effect in December 2018 that required airlines to track how many wheelchairs were damaged, lost, or delayed. A veteran and double amputee, Duckworth understands the problems that wheelchair users face, said Jean Hall, director of the Institute for Health and Disability Policy Studies at the Life Span Institute. 

“She knows all too well the myriad problems with air travel,” Hall said. “If she hadn’t called attention to it, I doubt many people in power would really care.” 

The legislation led to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation that highlighted just how nerve-racking flying can be for wheelchair users. Roughly 7,700 wheelchairs were mishandled from January to September in 2019, averaging out to 29 wheelchairs per day.

Ranita Wilks, an advisory board member at the RTC, said her brand-new manual chair was damaged when the airline deconstructed the chair for transport. The footrest left wheel and mainframe were all damaged. 

“My four-day trip to Washington, D.C., was spent on the phone with Global Repair Group trying to coordinate repairs to my chair,” she said. “While there, they sent a repair company to my hotel room which informed me they couldn’t repair the wheelchair.” The damage ultimately took three months to fix. 

Nary said such experiences pose an issue to equality in terms of travel and employment. Some people may opt to avoid airline travel altogether because of their concerns about their mobility. But without travel, an individual may miss out on networking, research, education, or other opportunities, Nary said. For a population that experiences high unemployment – 65% percent of individuals with disabilities are unemployed – that is a critical issue for a person’s career and their lifestyle.

“Air travel is necessary for people with disabilities to be able to work and play in the same ways that people without disabilities do,” Hall said. “Yet, existing policies to assure equal access to air travel are, as shown, largely ineffective.”

At the Research & Training Center on Independent Living, researchers work to enhance independent living initiatives for individuals with disabilities. For airline travel, the center developed a fact sheet for individuals to know their rights under the Air Carrier Access Act in case an issue arises.

“One important step in making change is empowering people with disabilities to know their rights and speak up when airlines do not meet the spirit and intent of the law,” Hall said. “We are also committed to giving a voice to people with disabilities through our research so that barriers like this one continue to get the attention they deserve.”