In this op-ed, Amy Kenny highlights the inaccessibility of travel, and the harm disabled people face when their mobility aids are damaged by airlines.
My heart pounds in my ears as I wave goodbye to my freedom for a few hours, wondering if I will get it back when we land. The flight crew grab my wheels like they are kneading sourdough: frantic, aggressive, and handsy. To them, my mobility scooter is an object, a piece of plastic, vinyl, and foam they can grip and rip. They don’t know her like I do. They don’t know there’s a groove on the left armrest from my dancing arms, or how it feels to glide around a corner, like an April breeze caressing your nose. They don’t know how jerky she gets when the seat is misplaced, or the handles aren’t tightened just right. All they see is a clump of scraps they can discard.
I stay strapped to my plane seat for the next five hours, holding my hope and my pee until I reach the city that never sleeps. I try to distract myself from imagining the doom that awaits me at baggage claim if my wheels are damaged. A holiday dream of frozen hot chocolates and glittery window displays quickly becomes a nightmare if the airline bruises or loses my mobility scooter before my vacation even starts.
Traveling home for the holidays can be horrible for disabled people. Airlines routinely damage wheelchairs and scooters with very little regard for how it impacts our lives. In 2019, 10,548 scooters and wheelchairs were “mishandled” by U.S. airlines. That’s an average of 29 per day. We only know these statistics because Sen. Tammy Duckworth authored a law passed in 2018 requiring the U.S. Department of Transportation to release data on how many wheelchairs and scooters are damaged each month.
Breaking a wheelchair isn’t just an inconvenience for disabled people, it can be a matter of life or death. Disability advocate Engracia Figueroa died on October 31, 2021 from complications after an airline damaged her $30,000 custom wheelchair and she had to use a loaner wheelchair for months.
Even if the results aren’t deadly, breaking our mobility aids robs us of our agency and freedom. When my mobility scooter was inoperable while traveling, I was hoisted onto a manual wheelchair with a wobbly wheel, like the last shopping cart that nobody wants. Squeak, rattle, and roll suddenly announcing my arrival. When my mobility scooter is broken, I am re-disabled. Disabled by the environment not built for my body. Disabled by the lack of inclusion for people navigating the world on wheels.
My freedom is powered by my mobility scooter. It’s strenuous to wheel about the world on a manual wheelchair with only my upper body strength or the kindness of companions to roll me forward. The tree-bent concrete, crumbling cement, and narrow sidewalks prove arduous to traverse on manual wheels that are not my own. Everything takes twice as long, and gets me half as far without the motorized hum of my mobility scooter. One restaurant is too narrow for my bulky rental to fit; another, too full. The accessible entrance to most is around the back alley where only the rats and dumpster greet me.