#AdvocacyMatters: When The Skies Aren't Friendly

November 19, 2021 / #AdvocacyMatters

As an organization, our mission and vision is rooted in the belief that true societal equity can’t be achieved until the rights enjoyed by the majority are enjoyed by all. The concept of “disability rights” isn’t simply a matter of ramps at entrance doors, designated parking spaces, and braille on elevator buttons. At its core, “disability rights” means that people with disabilities should be free to live, work, learn, and go where they choose just as those without disabilities. And while the path towards true equity is peppered with obstacles of all types, a recent headline-grabbing incident is casting new light onto a major obstacle facing people with disabilities when traveling.

On October 31st, a disability rights activist died from complications associated with the destruction of her customized wheelchair. Engracia Figueroa, an amputee with a spinal cord injury, was returning home to California after attending the Care Can’t Wait rally in Washington, D.C. over the summer when her $30,000 wheelchair was destroyed in the cargo hold of her United Airlines flight. In the weeks and months waiting for the chair to be replaced, Figueroa developed sores and other complications that ultimately took her life.
Unfortunately, such damage to a mobility device while traveling is commonplace. Remarkably in July 2021 alone – the same month that Figueroa’s chair was destroyed – 834 wheelchairs were reported to have been damaged by US-based airlines. The issue has been so prevalent for so long that advocate, comedian, and DRO Board Member Matt O’Nesti petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to address it in 2014 when he was just 17 years old.

“As I get older and my pain gets worse, I tend to dread the travel, not the destination,” O’Nesti petitioned the agency. “So why does it have to be so complicated to fly a wheelchair?”

In the 7 years since first writing that letter, Matt’s concerns have only grown.

“Disabled people, just like any other person, deserve to not have their ‘legs’ broken the moment they land at their destination. It’s absurd to me to that this issue appears to only be getting worse as the years have gone on and there is still seemingly nothing being done to fix the problem. In the face of tragedy, now more than ever, there needs to be action taken by the FAA to start problem-solving the barriers to driving wheelchairs directly on planes. It can’t wait any longer because it’ll only continue to cause safety concerns for our community, hurt our freedom of choice for employment, and deny our rights to enjoy the natural beauties this great country offers.”

Barriers to free travel are barriers to equity. Because #AdvocacyMatters, we must keep pushing until the skies are a friendly, safe, and welcoming place… for all.

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