‘This chair gives me my life back’ : Disabled passengers beg airlines to handle with care

Millions of Americans are traveling this week for the holidays. But for passengers with disabilities, the challenges of air travel can be significantly heightened. People continue to report embarrassing security pat downs, damaged and even lost mobility devices. In July alone, there were 834 reported incidents of damaged wheelchairs or scooters — an average of 28 a day.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Millions of Americans are traveling this week for the holidays. But for passengers with disabilities, the challenges and problems of air travel can be significantly heightened.

    People continue to report embarrassing security pat-downs, damaged and even lost mobility devices. In July alone, there were 834 reported incidents of damaged wheelchairs or scooters, an average of 28 a day.

    We're going to look at this tonight, beginning with some individual voices.

    Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, University of Michigan: I am Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami. I am the director of student accessibility and accommodation services at the University of Michigan.

    I experienced a spinal cord injury in my third year of orthopedic surgery residency, which then left me paralyzed from my chest down with minimal use of my upper extremities.

  • Mary Corey March, California:

    My name is Corey March. And I have ME/CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome

    I can't actually sit upright for very long, so I'm in a reclining wheelchair that's like at this — at this kind of angle, which makes it harder to get a loaner or replacement.

  • Fletcher Cleaves, Tennessee:

    My name is Fletcher Cleaves. And my formal title is the Wheelchair Nomad. I am a incomplete quadriplegic, C5-C6 vertebrae spinal cord injury. I use a wheelchair 24/7.

  • Andrea Dalzell, New York:

    My name is Andrea Dalzell, and I have transverse myelitis that caused me to be a wheelchair user from the age of 12 years old.

    Charles Brown, National President, Paralyzed Veterans of America: I'm Charles Brown. I'm the national president for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

    I was injured in 1986 in a diving injury while serving at Cherry Point, North Carolina. You probably can't see it, but I'm in a power chair. I am a quadriplegic, and I have been in a wheelchair for 35 years now.

  • Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami:

    I'm afraid to say that I have not had probably any trips that I have gone on that have not resulted in some damage to my manual frame wheelchair.

  • Fletcher Cleaves:

    I was missing the back of my wheelchair. You can see right here it was completely gone. And I was like, excuse me. This chair is not the condition I gave it to you in.

  • Andrea Dalzell:

    I was on my way home from Florida. Looking out of the window, I saw my chair sitting to the side of the steps of the gate.

    And I'm like, OK, they will come get it. And all of a sudden, I feel the plane move back. I see the gate starting to move away. And my chair is still sitting outside on the tarmac. And I'm, like, pressing the stewardess button. And she comes to me, and she's like: Can I help you? We're about to take off."

  • And I’m like:

    "My legs are outside. My legs are outside."

  • Charles Brown:

    I have had several injuries, and I have had quite a few damaged wheelchairs over my time with traveling. And it's not just me. It's many people across the nation that suffer through this process.

  • Mary Corey March:

    So, in the first year, my chair was damaged about four times.

    I have since learned better ways of protecting my chair. And part of what I do is, I put like a plea on my chair to the baggage handlers that say: "This chair gives me my life back."

  • Fletcher Cleaves:

    When airlines start getting fined and start losing money, that's when they typically tend to care, or getting negative exposure and negative press.

  • Mary Corey March:

    In my case, it would be nice to have a dispensation like to pay for a regular ticket and be able to get the seat that functions for me, and to have some kind of penalty for the ground crews or some kind of penalty on the airline if they break a chair.

  • Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami:

    People don't think that this is a serious concern and it's just a matter of finding space to put your wheelchair, like not having enough space for your luggage in the airplane. They miss the fact that this is individuals' lives that are at stake.

  • Charles Brown:

    I can tell you that, for a lot of people, air travel becomes a situation where they choose not to do it to prevent damage to their chairs or even their bodies.

  • Andrea Dalzell:

    Congress needs to understand that these devices are not as easy as just going to your local Walgreens and picking up a wheelchair.

    These devices are literally tailored for every single individual, and then making sure that each airline is held accountable and enforcing that they have the training and the educational resources that they need to be able to handle these devices.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are just some of hundreds of stories that are almost exactly like what you just heard.

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