'It's very much a matter of dignity': Tammy Duckworth pushes through rule requiring airlines to disclose how many wheelchairs they break
Source: Chicago Tribune
Beginning as early as January, airline passengers will be able to search the U.S. Department of Transportation website to determine an airlines’ record of handling wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
“It’s very much a matter of dignity,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told me Tuesday.
The rule was actually passed two years ago after receiving bipartisan support, but Duckworth said the Department of Transportation was delaying implementation until she pushed U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Congress to force the airlines to make the data — which they already collect each month — available to the public.
“The first report should be out the first week of January and will cover the month of December,” Duckworth said. “It might be as late as February, but we’re hoping for a January time frame.”
Duckworth, a veteran who uses a wheelchair after losing both of her legs in 2004 while serving in the Iraq War, compared the data to an airline’s on-time arrival record. Necessary, in other words, for consumers to make informed decisions about where they spend their air-travel money.
Duckworth said two of her wheelchairs have been broken during air travel and one, just two weeks ago, was banged up so badly that she had to take it to a VA medical center to get it adjusted.
“In one case, they snapped the titanium rod that supports the seat,” she said. “It looked OK when they brought it to me, and when I sat on it, it collapsed.”
Passengers whose wheelchairs or mobility devices are broken are often stranded on the plane until a new one arrives, Duckworth said, and a new one often means a giant airport-provided wheelchair with no brakes that doesn’t fit through most doors. That’s what happened to Duckworth the last time hers was broken.
“I couldn’t even roll myself — I had to have someone push me,” she said. “I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself.”
People with cerebral palsy or paralysis often use wheelchairs that have been sculpted specifically for their bodies, she said. Having that caliber of machinery lost or broken is expensive, onerous and dangerous.
“Even if they rip or gouge a seat cushion, that can lead to things like sores and skin breakdowns and all sorts of problems,” Duckworth said.
The Paralyzed Veterans of America, a group that advocates for quality health care, benefits and civil rights for veterans and all people with disabilities, helped spearhead and push for the legislation, Duckworth said.
“When you break my wheelchair, you’re basically taking my legs away from me,” she said. “It is my mobility.”
Also attached to the FAA reauthorization was Duckworth’s Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., requiring all large- and medium-sized airports to provide clean, accessible, private rooms in every terminal for nursing mothers. The bill also requires airports to provide baby-changing tables in men’s and women’s bathrooms.
Once again, we’re seeing the fruits of a Congress that looks and lives like its diverse body of constituents and brings those lived experiences to the legislating table.
By: Heidi Stevens
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