Traveling with a wheelchair is not worth the risk for thousands of Americans with disabilities


TAMPA, Florida – Buses, trains, and other public transportation must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires people in wheelchairs to be able to get around.

But the airline industry does not have to follow these rules. They can follow an older law: the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986.

Even though the law has been updated since 1986, many say it still does not do enough to accommodate people with disabilities.

As more travelers head to the airport, now that COVID-19 restrictions disappear, airlines are pushed even harder to be more accessible to everyone, especially for those who are now in wheelchairs who have served our country, as LTC Phil Price.

Price has served in the Air Force his entire career. He traveled the world for decades, but his flying days were ultimately anchored by his body.

“In 2000, Phil was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he had previously been diagnosed primarily with MS. [Multiple Sclerosis]Phil’s wife of over 30 years, Debbie, said. “The brain tumor affected the same motor areas as MS, so its mobility was greatly affected.”

Finally, in 2009, his brain tumor returned. He was removed surgically, but the combination of cancer and MS forced Price to start using a wheelchair.

“He was told we weren’t treating MS because of the theory that kept his brain tumor at bay, so he didn’t take any treatment,” Debbie said. “So MS has slowly over time, that’s what’s ravaging the body now. “

But Price’s body has some reinforcements: A custom-made wheelchair gives him the ability to move around and travel by car.

“The VA provides it, but it’s a $ 25,000 to $ 30,000 chair,” Price explained. “So you’re not talking about, you know, something that can be easily replaced.”

Because of this, it forced the often-stealing man to make a difficult choice.

“We chose not to fly because of the risk of damaging the chair,” Debbie said. “We get off the plane and the chair is damaged. There is nothing we can do about it at this point. I can’t wear it. He can’t walk. He can’t transfer, so we’d be stuck.

The chair is one concern, but physical safety is another.

“They have to physically pick you up and put you in their airplane chair, and it’s just Phil just doesn’t want to go through this, you know, it’s kinda humiliating.” It’s embarrassing, ”said Debbie, turning to her husband. “I’m sort of speaking for you.”

A study conducted by the wheelchair advocacy group All the wheels up found that 80% of people in wheelchairs never even come to the airport because it’s just too risky.

The risks have become even more evident since federal guidelines changed in 2018, requiring airlines to report the number of chairs they damage each day.

Data revealed that airlines break and damage an average of 29 wheelchairs per day. The law requires airlines to pay for repairs and replacements, but there is no time constraint. This leaves many families concerned that their much-needed mobility equipment will be unavailable for too long.

“I knew it was a problem, but it was a lot worse than I thought,” Price said.

In addition to the damage, accessibility throughout the airport and inside the aircraft itself is another obstacle that hinders potential travelers in wheelchairs.

“A lot of people think the ADA covers air travel, and it doesn’t. ACAA [Air Carrier Access Act], which was established four years before the ADA, covers air travel for people with disabilities, which is why there is no wheelchair space on planes, ”explained Michele Irwin, Founder and CEO of All Wheels Up.

Irwin and Alan Chaulet, a member of the group’s board of directors, are working to install a wheelchair slot in new airplanes and usable bathrooms for people in wheelchairs.

“Some people with disabilities, like they don’t drink water all day, travel, don’t eat food just to prepare their bodies for it,” said Chaulet, who himself uses a chair and has been through it. firsthand.

“They can’t just book their tickets online like everyone else,” Irwin explained. “They usually have to call the airlines and book their ticket over the phone, let the airline know they’re coming with a wheelchair, make sure they’re going to have someone on their staff at that time. who knows how to handle a wheelchair. “

But changing accessibility could help people in wheelchairs feel less isolated.

“It’s sad because, like, I missed my sister’s wedding and my family left without me,” Chaulet said. “I missed some of my cousin’s marriages. And yes, it is very hard. It shouldn’t be like that.

The Price family agrees.

“It would be nice to be able to come in and have this freedom, to have this freedom, not to feel trapped,” Debbie said.

Irwin said more accessible planes could save airlines money as well.

“In 2016, an airline spent $ 1.6 million on repairs and placement of wheelchairs,” she said.

A wheelchair space would reduce those costs and open the door to thousands of new airline customers.

“Now this family, instead of driving to their destination, is now going to have this opportunity, which they have never had before, to fly,” she said.

At the end of the day, it is fairness that families and advocates want to see.

“It’s about feeling comfortable, feeling human like everyone else, not feeling different,” Debbie Price said of her husband. “It is not enough for people, people with disabilities around the world to speak out to say that we need better changes in the airline industry. It takes normal people every day to express themselves.

For Phil Price, these changes would mean a trip to see his daughter live out of state in Atlanta, or the chance to go somewhere just for fun.

“New York or something,” he said of a place he would like to visit.

And although the day when he will fly again seems far away, he has hopes of seeing the world again from the air.

“Well, you have to have hope,” he said.

As the nation opens up and travel seems busier than ever, this family is hopeful that every able-bodied traveler recognizes the luxury of being able to fly anywhere.

“I hope people would just be grateful to have this freedom because there are a lot of people who don’t have this freedom. They have lost this freedom,” Debbie said.

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