October 16, 2021

US airlines damage thousands of wheelchairs every year. Disabled Sen. Tammy Duckworth says, 'It's like they're breaking my legs every 3-4 flights.'

Source: Business Insider


Like most US senators, Tammy Duckworth travels a lot. But, every 3-4 flights, her mobility is taken away from her, she tells Insider. 

"Wheelchairs should be treated like a human limb because they're my legs," says Sen. Duckworth in a video call with Insider.

"When you break my wheelchair, or you lose my wheelchair, you've taken away my legs." Senator Duckworth lost her legs as a veteran in the Iraq war when the Blackhawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by an RPG.

"Once I was on a flight and a solid titanium tube was snapped in half. It held the seat together, and I sank right through. 

"What were they doing, landing the plane on it?" The purple-heart-holding senator from Illinois joked, revealing the intensity of some of the damages."

Disability advocates, activists, and wheelchair users who fly often are urging a switch in the narrative: instead of saying wheelchairs are being broken, view them as a part of the body that is being destroyed. 

In July 2021, according to the latest Air Travel Consumer Report, there were 834 incidents of "mishandled" wheelchairs and scooters of passengers transported by US airlines. An average of 28 a day.

But the major airlines have adopted very few policies for the carrying of wheelchairs, according to publicly available and press comments sent to Insider.

Hawaiian Airlines had a mishandling rate of 2% of their enplaned wheelchairs in July. Its policy states that electric and non-folding wheelchairs are stowed. Manual wheelchairs may be stored in an in-cabin cupboard. They did not respond to Insider's request for further information on handling policies. 

American Airlines, also had a rate of 2% of the 11,160 wheelchairs it carried in July. It told Insider that wheelchairs get loaded and strapped down in the cargo compartment. 

"The safe and careful handling of wheelchairs and mobility devices onto aircraft is a top priority at American. When it comes to loading them onto aircraft, mobility devices take priority over luggage and are carefully handled and monitored throughout the loading and unloading process."

Delta Airlines - responsible for the break of influencer and disability advocate GG deFiebre's chair in a May 2020 trip from New York to Phoenix, documented in a viral TikTok post viewed 17.8 million times - saw 99 mishandlings in July.

The airline told Insider that wheelchairs are loaded onto the cabin last and offloaded first. They ask wheelchair users to present the necessary loading and handling requirements to the loader. 

Indeed, wheelchair users are at the forefront of managing the risk of transporting the chairs. The Department of Transportation - and many airlines - encourages wheelchair users to carry instructions to ensure the safest passage for their wheelchairs. 

Bri Scalesse, a 26-year-old model and disability advocate from New York, had her wheelchair broken on a Delta flight 3737 from St Paul, Minnesota, to Newark, New Jersey, on July 4, 2021.

"If you treat the wheelchair as an extension of a person, there's no way it would be destroyed," She told Insider. 

"It starts with the core issue of people with disabilities not being seen as equal and important, and our wheelchair is not being seen or understood."

She tells Insider that the problem goes beyond airlines, with her viral TikTok documenting this traumatic experience giving an unsettling insight into the misunderstandings that wider society has of the disabled community.

"One of the things crazy to me was I got three or four comments from people saying, you know, just go to a thrift store and buy a wheelchair in the meantime. And it blew my mind because it just shows me how little people know or understand what an actual wheelchair user needs to live a daily life, the type of wheelchair, the customization of the process of getting a wheelchair," said Scalesse.

"I think that's something that people don't realize is our skin is so reliant on the cushions that we sit on and the way that our bodies fit. If you're sitting on the wrong thing for even four days, you're going to have a sore - and that can then literally threaten your life," she said.

Theo Donnelly, a 22-year-old wheelchair user, based in southeast England, told Insider that he'd experienced numerous breaks to his motorized wheelchair.

"It makes me not want to travel because even if there's a small chance of my chair being damaged, that risk just doesn't exist for non-wheelchair users. They don't have to think about a 1 in 10 chance of having their legs broken on a flight," says Donnelly, who uses a motorized wheelchair due to paralysis in both of his legs and an arm.

He also added that, despite frequently flying, he's never experienced a flight with an accessible bathroom. He will not drink before a flight or on longer flights has to resort to urinating in bottles.

It isn't an option for everyone, depending on their anatomy, he added.

Cory Lee, founder of the Webby Award-winning accessible travel blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, has traveled to 37 countries and all seven continents, but he says his $35,000 wheelchair comes back damaged after about 25% of his flights. Insider's Talia Lakritz spoke to him the day of one of these breaks. 

New training and new airplanes: the future of accessible flying 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth introduced a policy to force airlines to report wheelchair breaks (among other incidents) to the Civil Aviation Authority. 

Senator Duckworth also advocated that "there should be training for baggage handlers so that they know how to handle the different types of medical devices."

As well as the treatment of the chairs in the airplane, Senator Duckworth said that being met off a plane as a wheelchair user is often a "crapshoot" as they frequently arrive with a one-size-fits-all aisle chair which can harm the body of a disabled person. 

She explains the need for better training to ensure that the needs of disabled passengers are met and cared for, not ignored or absolved under the guise of "that's not our fault, it's a contractor," Senator Duckworth explains. 

Senator Duckworth has been a lot of 'firsts' in the Senate: the first female amputee, the first female Thai-American, the first disabled woman, and the first senator to give birth while in office. She's helmed policy change to allow for breastfeeding on the floor of the Senate, as well as introducing the Friendly Airports for Mother's act, ensuring that mothers have a safe, clean place to breastfeed their babies in airports. 

But the change isn't stopping there.

"To fix this problem in the future, we can make sure that when new airplanes are designed, especially if they're in their passenger aircraft, that they're designed so that they do accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities. 

"By requiring airlines to meet clear accessibility standards - ensuring there must be one wheelchair-accessible toilet on the airplane, that there should be a closet that's big enough for us to put a wheelchair into so that you don't have to put the wheelchair in the hold. A lot of those types of standards could be part of the future when we design commercial airliners."

In September 2021, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Jim Langevin, the first quadriplegic to be elected to Congress, introduced legislation to improve the accessibility of air travel for disabled people. 

The Air Carrier Access Amendments Act is co-sponsored in the Senate by Tammy Ducksworth and Bob Casey, Richard Blumenthal, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, and Maggie Hassan. 

In a statement, Langevin said, "Although we have made progress in the last 35 years to address barriers in plane travel for people with disabilities, I know personally that challenges remain" 

"It's past time we update the standard of air travel and make services more inclusive and responsive to individual needs."

By:  Bethany Dawson