The Inaccessibility of Airplanes And The Need For Reform

Disabled man getting lifted into an airplane seat.

Disabled man getting lifted into an airplane seat.

It is shocking to learn how inaccessible airplanes are for the disabled. There are certainly procedures followed by airlines to assist disabled customers but they are simply not good enough. Time and time again I keep hearing about airline horror stories involving the disabled. Someone I know, who was traveling with his power chair, got his chair back from storage and the joystick was broken. That is horrifying in itself, because wheelchairs are a part of you and if you cannot use it properly, you lose all of your independence. Granted he had it fixed but that is simply unacceptable.

Recently I read a news article about this man named D’Arcee Neal who had to crawl on his hands to exit a United Airlines airplane because an employee with an aisle wheelchair never arrived to assist him. He waited over 45 minutes for it but he decided to crawl off mainly because he really needed to use the bathroom. While he was crawling, the flight attendants just stared and watched him struggle. United Airlines got wind of the incident and stated, “As customers began to exit the aircraft, we made a mistake and told the agent with the aisle chair that it was no longer needed, and it was removed from the area,” the airline said “When we realized our error — that Mr. Neal was onboard and needed the aisle chair — we arranged to have it brought back, but it arrived too late.” They also apologized and provided him with compensation for the incident. Follow the link and read the actual article, it was interesting and shocking. However, this is completely unacceptable and it personally scares me away from flying because with my disorder I would not have even been able to crawl. I would be stuck there until someone picked me up and carried me off the plane.

I researched further about airport procedures for the disabled and realized the whole process needs significant reform. When someone with a wheelchair is about to board before everybody else, they are transferred into a special aisle wheelchair and then transferred into a seat. That procedure is absolutely wrong for more severely handicapped individuals like myself. A possible solution is to have the first row seat by the door removable so one’s personal wheelchair can be parked there. Some need to stay in their chairs because many need the chair’s supports such as headrests, footrests, and armrests and some even need their ventilators on the back of their chairs. Asking them to sit in a regular seat is a non-starter, and could possibly cause significant injury.

Another procedure that is a problem is the storage of wheelchairs, which could be solved by the above solution. There are many types of wheelchairs that are stored differently. Manual wheelchairs are easily foldable and light but power wheelchairs are more complicated. They are very heavy and in some cases procedures require that the battery needs to be removed and stored separately. Also in other cases if the chair cannot fit in storage, it needs to be disassembled in order to fit. That procedure is ridiculous, it is asking airport employees to know how to disassemble then reassemble your wheelchair. That is very risky and people do not realize how expensive power chairs really are and the hell you have to go through to get insurance to cover a new wheelchair. You are basically entrusting a stranger with a part of your body. It simply should not be that way.

These are the typical procedures involved but upon looking at the United Airlines website, I forgot about assistance a disabled individual like myself may need during the flight. They list specifically how flight attendants can assist you. “Flight attendants will offer assistance to semi-ambulatory customers in getting to/from the seat during boarding and/or disembarkation and to/from the onboard lavatory. They may assist with loading and retrieving carry-on items and other assistive devices stowed on board the aircraft. They will also assist with meal preparation such as opening packages and identifying items. They cannot assist with any medical services, assistance inside the lavatory, or in actual feeding.” It is decent to an extent but it only seems useful to certain disabled persons that are semi-independent. For somebody like me, I need consistent care, and simply helping me get to the seat, bathroom or preparing my meal is not helping me. Honestly, I probably would travel with a family member or an aide but if I wanted to go by myself, I would be screwed. I would have to not eat or go to the bathroom for the duration of the flight. I guess I definitely will not be on a 16 hour flight anytime soon!

The bathroom situation on airplanes seems like another issue. United Airlines states that they have handicapped stalls but I wonder how accessible it really is. The man in my earlier example refused to use the airplane bathroom because he said before that he couldn’t even reach the toilet bowl because of lack of space. That is a complicated issue to solve because everyone has different needs. Maybe they could have a designated section on the plane for the disabled that is closed off. That way, the disabled individual can use the bathroom privately. But then again I realize space is limited so the disabled may need to just hold it in for now. I know I was at least blessed with a strong bladder.

I understand that everything cannot be perfect but the solution is quite simple. The disabled should be able to drive their chair onto a plane and park. Some space would surely need to be sacrificed but it is quite feasible. I have been in cars, boats, trains and buses without transferring to a seat and storing my wheelchair, why can’t airplanes be the same? Until airlines start enacting significant reforms for disabled customers, I will not give them any business. Thankfully due to my lifestyle I do not need to fly anywhere soon but it does limit me from doing things. Vacations are definitely difficult because my family and I have to drive on long journeys. However, it is certainly more of a hassle to travel by air with the current airline procedures in place.


About thewheelworld91

My name is Mike and I recently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in history. I am disabled and afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy so I'm in a wheelchair. I have been looking for a job for over a year with no luck. However, i have some non profit experience and interned at a museum. Other than that I've been going to events for my disorder and doing fun activities such as video games and using the internet. This blog will focus on being disabled, US and international politics/affairs and video games or whatever is on my mind.
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