Death of Disability Advocate Puts Spotlight on Systemic Ableism in Air Travel

BY Matthew Rozsa: For Complete Post, click here…

nited Airlines has made headlines in recent years for being, to say the least, rather unfriendly to its customers. In 2017, the company infamously used physical force to remove a passenger from a plane after it had been overbooked, injuring the man in the process. A few months later, the company got into hot water for the death of a giant rabbit named Simon; by 2018, it was also in trouble because a flight attendant forced a passenger to put her pet dog in an overhead storage big, where it died. The company has even been the target of a protest song, “United Breaks Guitars,” by an artist who claims the company destroyed his musical instrument.

The corporation may be an easy target for jokes about its customer service crises. Yet the recent death of a disability rights activist spurred by the airlines’ alleged destruction of her wheelchair speaks to a deeper systemic ableism in our society — an issue not merely confined to one airline.

Engracia Figueroa, a disability rights advocate at Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, died on Oct. 31 at the age of 51, months after United Airlines workers accidentally damaged her specialized wheelchair. According to Hand in Hand, the destruction of Figueroa’s wheelchair in July was far, far more than an inconvenience. The device was built specifically to accommodate Figueroa’s disability, caused by a spinal injury and leg amputation, and it was hazardous for her to spend too much time without it. The five-hour wait at the airport (during which she learned her chair had been destroyed) led to an acutely painful pressure sore for which she had to be hospitalized. Making matters worse, the company at first refused to replace Figueroa’s chair in accordance with the Airline Carriers Access Act, which requires airlines to replace damaged or misplaced assistive devices. Because Figueroa’s chair was motorized, it could have been unsafe or presented a fire hazard if she used it while damaged, and her body required something more specialized than the standard wheelchair they offered her.

Sadly, by the time United finally agreed to get Figueroa an adequate replacement chair, “the months in which they [United] fought against the replacement took a toll on her body,” according to Hand in Hand. “While fighting with United to replace her chair, Engracia was forced to use a loaner chair that was not properly fitted to Engracia’s body.” This exacerbated her pressure sore and led to an infection that spread to her hip bone, eventually leading to her death. (Salon reached out to Hand in Hand and United Airlines for comment on this story; neither replied, although Hand in Hand has been outspoken in supporting Figueroa and United has publicly offered condolences to Figueroa’s family through a statement to The Independent.)

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