When Marine Corps Veteran Todd Kemery was injured during a surfing accident at just 21 years old, he assumed things would go back to normal when he got out of the hospital.
“I didn’t realize the seriousness of my injury until my father walked through the door of my hospital room,” Todd said. “I couldn’t figure out what he was doing in California from Pennsylvania. That’s when the cold reality dawned on me that this wasn’t going away.”
Now a quadriplegic, Todd was discharged from the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, after six months and then spent a year floundering at home. His lack of personal goals drove him into a deep depression.
Then, Todd had a visitor: a friend he had met at the VA Medical Center. This friend was also a quadriplegic, but he was able to drive a car and travel independently.
“I thought to myself, ‘If he can drive and be independent, then I can certainly start moving forward,’” Todd said. “So, I decided to go to college to start the process of moving on and creating new goals for myself.”
After earning a degree in business management and moving to Minnesota, Todd was recruited to be a sports director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
In his new role, Todd had to face a new challenge: air travel.
“The [National Veterans Wheelchair Games, co-hosted annually by PVA and the Department of Veterans Affairs] are in a different location every year, which means you get to travel. Learning to travel with confidence is an important step when you’re first injured,” Todd said. “One of the biggest hurdles for me was the stress of figuring out how to get from point A to point B in a wheelchair. What if something bad happens while I’m in a new destination? How am I going to deal with it?”
Todd’s first experiences traveling after his injury were certainly eye-opening. He quickly realized how unprepared airlines seemed to transport someone with disabilities like his.
“I’ve been traveling in a wheelchair or flying in a wheelchair since even before the Air Carrier Access Act,” Todd said. “During my first plane ride, they put a blanket underneath me because they assumed that I was going to pee or poop myself.”
“Then when I got to my destination out at Lancaster, California, they took me off the plane by a forklift and a pallet. They pulled that thing up, raised it up and I was the last off the plane,” Todd said. “I was sitting there looking around and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m the center of attention, yay!’ But later you start to think, ‘Wait, what are the dynamics of all of that? What’s really being said here?’”
Over 35 years ago, President Ronald Reagan signed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) into law. The ACAA prohibits discrimination based on disability in air travel. Despite progress, too many travelers with disabilities still encounter significant barriers, such as damaged assistive devices, delayed assistance, and lack of seating accommodations.
PVA recently conducted a survey of its members to gather information to inform the fight to improve the Air Carrier Access Act and make air travel better for all people with disabilities. From October 4-December 6, 2021, over 1,260 individuals responded to the survey.
Survey Results Highlights:
- Nearly 84 percent of passengers with disabilities who DO fly, travel by air at least two times a year with many indicating they would fly much more often if disability access was improved.
- More than 63 percent of survey respondents indicated the need to use an aisle chair, with many citing such chairs were unsafe, in poor condition, and not readily available.
- Of those who travel with a wheelchair or scooter, almost 70 percent reported damage to the device. Almost 56 percent experienced delays.
- 67 percent of passengers with disabilities wait 15 minutes or more for help upon arrival to their destination.
Todd remains heavily involved in PVA’s work, both in adaptive sports and advocacy. In all his years traveling in a wheelchair, he’s seen some improvement and plenty of discussion on how to change air travel to better serve those with disabilities. But he worries that progress will be too slow if we strive for perfection when improvements could be made now.
“They’re now leapfrogging over improving the aisle chairs, and they’re actually talking about people staying in their wheelchair and removing a section of seating out of the plane so you can get tied down right there. Which is great, but how long are we going to wait for that?” Todd asked. “Let’s fix the aisle chair, so I don’t have a skin breakdown and I don’t fall over. And get airline staff the training that goes along with that.”
Todd believes that accessible air travel is more than a legal requirement (thanks to the ACAA), but also a fundamental necessity for the physical and mental recovery of injured Veterans like himself. He wants to see more people in wheelchairs able to travel and gain their independence.
“Part of what I try to instill in people is the value of giving yourself new experiences,” Todd said. “If all you can do is get on a bus or drive yourself to the mall, you should at least be doing that. If you’re able to challenge yourself further, then do that.
“When you get outside of your comfort zone, you begin to learn and experience new things, and that develops confidence and stamina.”
Learn more about PVA’s work improving air travel and the Air Carrier Access Act here.
Sign the petition to pass the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act here.