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How the airline industry still refuses to accommodate disability

It will probably be years before we see a wheelchair seat on an airplane.
Photo illustration: Aerial view of airplanes on the tarmac on either sides of a Disabled signage that is broken.
Airlines still haven't learned how not to break or lose wheelchairs.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

When her wheelchair was severely damaged during her flight on Delta Airlines from Minneapolis to Newark, New Jersey, the model and influencer Bri Scalesse took to TikTok and recorded a video that quickly went viral. "Today my freedom and independence was taken away," she said. "I don't know how I'm going to live my life."

Pretty much no one looks forward to airline travel. But if you're a wheelchair user, flying isn't just an inconvenience; it can be devastating.

Airlines were reported to have lost or broken 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters in 2019.

In 2018, 36,930 disability-related complaints were made to airlines. Airlines were reported to have lost or broken 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters in 2019, more than 1 out of every 100 they handle, yet little has been done to address the problem. A disability rights group called All Wheels Up is trying to change that by fighting for the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I. The act would require new airplanes to meet accessibility standards and existing aircraft to make modifications to accommodate disabled passengers.

According to a report last year by the Transportation Department, airlines damage about 29 disabled travelers' wheelchairs every day.

No data are available from before 2019, because airlines weren't mandated to report or track how many wheelchairs they lost or damaged before that. "My wheelchair is my freedom, a part of me," Scalesse told MSNBC. "I was devastated."

Because wheelchair damages or losses are so common, flying is just not a privilege that equally extends to the disability community. "Eighty percent of the wheelchair community does not fly because of a risk to their physical selves or a loss of their wheelchair due to damage," said ​​Michele Erwin, the founder and president of All Wheels Up. The organization lobbies for wheelchair users "to independently maneuver themselves onto the plane with dignity and safety" and to make "air travel fully accessible for millions of people who use Wheelchairs around the world."

It’s about respecting human rights — but it’s also about recognizing the disability community as consumers.

Erwin says that along with the organization's vice president, Alan Chaulet, she successfully got airlines to start reporting the number of mobility devices they compromise and to commit to making flying accessible to the disability community.

Erwin and Chaulet emphasize that it's about respecting human rights — but it's also about recognizing the disability community as consumers. "Flying is tough, but thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, most destinations are accessible and so are many more around the world," Chaulet said. "People with disabilities have money to spend."

Airlines aren't just losing money on wheelchair repairs, replacements or flight reimbursements or by offering future travel vouchers for disgruntled disabled travelers; they're also missing out on the business of potential customers who stay away from flying for fear of becoming another headline.

And it's also not just wheelchair losses and damage — it's delays like the one that forced disability rights activist D'Arcee Charington to crawl out of a Delta flight in 2015. Bathrooms on planes aren't accessible to people with most mobility issues. While trains and buses are forced to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and create accessible wheelchair spots and restrooms, planes have been exempt from complying with the law because they are still following the Air Carrier Act, which was passed in 1986, before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.

While some airlines seem to be showing interest in All Wheels Up's research, education and training programs, the pace of chance is slow. "They are taking those steps," Erwin said of the airlines. "I just wish they were taking more aggressive steps. ... Unfortunately, we are still a few years away from the implementation of a wheelchair spot on airplanes."

That's because the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to approve wheelchairs on flights. All Wheels Up claims it is the only organization funding and conducting crash-test studies on wheelchairs to help make that certification happen.

Erwin also said most airlines don't have evacuation strategies for disabled travelers in emergency landings. "There is no plan for you if you are a disabled traveler," she said. "If you're someone with reduced mobility, the only suggestion that has been given to the flight attendants is to literally carry them out of the airplane."

Most airlines don't have evacuation strategies for disabled travelers in emergency landings.

All Wheels Up provides disabled travelers with a tool it calls ADAPTS, which stands for A Disabled Passenger Transfer Sling, which can help carry a disabled passenger in an emergency. The sling was designed by an anonymous flight attendant. Erwin hopes airlines integrate them so the burden isn't on the disability community to figure out how to survive emergency landings.

Since the program launched in January, 30 ADAPTS slings and special CARES harnesses (supplemental double shoulder straps to help passengers with disabilities safely get into their seats) have been handed out. Erwin says she is waiting on grants to keep going through a waiting list of disabled travelers who have applied for the devices.

To get the tools at no cost, disabled travelers must email with their names, email and home addresses, phone numbers and ages and explain why the tool would help them have a safer flight experience.

All Wheels Up, which powers all of its work through donations, is organizing a virtual 5K fundraiser. It also has a petition lobbying the FAA to add wheelchair-designated spaces on planes.

When it comes to air travel, as is often the case, it feels like disability is just not a priority. ​​"It's ridiculous that airlines can safely transport dogs and other pets under the plane keeping them alive but are incapable of not breaking wheelchairs, which are durable by design," Dylan Bulkeley-Krane, the disability rights policy coordinator for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, told MSNBC.

"Airlines are also capable of transporting larger luggage, like skis or surfboards, without problems but won't develop clear protocols to keep wheelchairs safe during transportation," Bulkeley-Krane said.

The fact that passengers can board their flights with their ducks but not their wheelchairs should make all of us ashamed of the ableist laws that still govern the airline industry.

"We don't want to be afraid to fly, travel, experience joy," Scalesse said. "A serious change needs to be made to the way airline industries treat and store chairs. I want my chair to be treated as an extension of my body."

Wheelchairs aren't a luxury item; they're a lifeline. Forcing disabled travelers to part from their wheelchairs is like forcing them to lose a part of themselves. And it shouldn't be incumbent on disabled passengers to make sure they are treated as such.