Friendly Skies for Passengers with Disabilities?

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By Rosemary Musachio, Accessibility Analyst

According to a study done by Open Doors Organization, 9.4 million Americans with disabilities fly each year. The airline industry profits over $3.5 billion in ticket sales to this travel sector; therefore, air carriers should offer the best services to this lucrative consumer group.

To ensure that airlines treat travelers with disabilities fairly, the Department of Transportation (DOT) established the Air Carrier Access Rules eleven years ago following Congress’s passing of the Air Carrier Access Act in 1986. These regulations are supposed to help prevent discrimination against passengers with disabilities while training airline employees to accommodate them to their best possible capacity. Unfortunately, unless persons file lawsuits or complaints with DOT against discriminatory airlines, no other penalty currently exists to enforce these regulations.

Since I’m a wheelchair user who occasionally travels, I have encountered discomfort, discrimination, and embarrassment at airports and on airplanes. One of the DOT regulations states that airlines must have “boarding chairs” to transport passengers with mobility impairments on and off the plane. Besides the chair appearing like something out of a Frankenstein movie, it doesn’t offer a sense of security. I felt as if I’d fall from it, especially when airport attendants pushed me. The seat is as big as a floor tile and the non-adjustable footrests offer no support for someone who is short-statue or whose feet cannot stay steady. Yet, until airlines create spaces onboard for passengers to remain in their own wheelchairs during flights, boarding chairs are the only solution to passenger transfers.

Airline attendants also are required to use boarding chairs to help transport passengers who are unable to walk to the lavatory. According to DOT, airplanes with more than one aisle or more than sixty seats shall have an accessible lavatory where the disabled passenger and a personal assistant have enough room to maneuver. The few times that I went to the lavatory were definitely tight fits! Unless one can stand with assistance and have the figure of a fashion model, entrance with an aisle chair is next to impossible. Thus, many passengers with mobility impairments have been compelled to wait until the plane lands to go to the restroom.

The DOT Air Carrier Access regulations also cover the storage of wheelchairs and other assistive devices; they shall be stored in overhead compartments, taking precedence over all baggage. Larger or motorized wheelchairs can be stored in the cargo area. Ideally, when the plane arrives, airline personnel should bring the chair promptly to the gate. Yet, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes passengers have to wait up to several hours on the plane, being notified later that the airline misplaced their chairs. When I went to Germany, the airline misplaced my wheelchair for several hours. While the airline was trying to locate it, I sat in an oversize wheelchair that had unstable footrests that left me sore for several days. Not only is losing a wheelchair not good publicity for the airline, it can put a dent in the air carrier’s pocket. DOT states that liability for a lost or damaged device is reimbursed in its original cost. Considering that manual wheelchairs cost between $1,000 and $3,500, airlines definitely should be careful with them.

Even though airline officials insist that heightened security policies should not affect passengers with disabilities, the contrary has been shown. If a passenger who has a mobility impairment cannot pass through the metal detector, DOT requires that airport security officials check them with hand-held detectors. However, they were apparently unaware of the rule at Dulles International Airport when they forced an elderly woman in a wheelchair to walk through the stationary detector. Because of tougher security measures, airport officials may dissemble wheelchairs to inspect them. Although they’re required to re-assemble them, sometimes they don’t.

Another issue that the Air Carrier Access rules cover is personal attendants (PA’s). Airlines cannot require disabled passengers to have PA’s accompany them on flights, even if they need help with feeding and going to the bathroom. Exceptions to this regulation are if the passenger is severely mentally disabled, both hearing and visually impaired, or unable to evacuate the plane alone if there’s an emergency. Regarding disabled travelers who only need their PA’s before and after boarding, airport officials shall provide special permits to them during the security check-in process. Nevertheless, some airports are apparently unaware of this procedure. For example, a wheelchair user who was stranded on the plane for eight hours due to a cancelled flight couldn’t meet her father at the gate because the airport didn’t permit him to wait there.

In addition to passengers who have mobility limitations, the DOT regulations include provisions for those with hearing and vision impairments. One requirement is for airports to provide text telephones (TT) for the hearing and speech impaired. Furthermore, to accommodate the visually impaired, airports shall have the oral equivalent of information systems that use visual words and symbols. For instance, if the flight board shows a cancellation, it should be also announced orally. Once on the airplane, open caption shall accompany any video presented, especially when it shows safety instructions. Furthermore, DOT allows the blind to bring guide dogs on board provided they have proper certification. In its latest endeavor towards accessibility, the DOT proposed that airline websites and kiosks comply with Section 508. If accepted, the proposed rule would allow persons with cognitive, dexterity, hearing and visual impairments to have greater access to airline information electronically.

Lastly but most importantly, the DOT Air Carrier Access regulations state that airlines shall train their employees to interact appropriately with passengers who have mobility, hearing, verbal, visual, or mental disabilities. After the training, for example, airline attendants should know how to directly address passengers with disabilities. Since I cannot talk, people, including airline and airport personnel, have often assumed that I could not hear or think also! When they ask questions about me to my mother, she tells them to ask me since I have a college degree.

Besides being able to communicate well with disabled passengers, airline staff should keep an open mind regarding obstacles we may experience while flying. I had a very unpleasant experience several years ago when returning from Italy. Since I tend to slip in airline seats, I push with my feet against the back of the seat in front of me to scoot myself up. The woman who sat in the front of me complained about my “kicking” her back. Although my mom tried to explain my situation, the woman started yelling at us and called the flight attendant, who was as uncompassionate as she was. Somehow, we convinced the flight attendant to change our seats. If she had received training on how to treat passengers with disabilities, perhaps the confrontation could have been avoided.

The airline industry must realize people with disabilities greatly contribute to its daily profits. As many baby boomers develop debilitating conditions and as technology helps persons with disabilities become more independent, the need for accessible, empathetic skies will be greater. Accommodating to our needs and concerns only makes great business sense.

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