Statement in response to Department of Transportation/United Airlines settlement agreement concerning Engracia FigueroaPost Date: September 28, 2023
Paralyzed Veterans of America, Hand In Hand, Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, and United Spinal Association issue joint statement in response to Department of Transportation/United Airlines settlement agreement concerning Engracia Figueroa
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For PVA – Oname Thompson
For Hand In Hand – Blithe Riley
For the Reeve Foundation – Julia Leonard
For United Spinal Association – Josie Byzek
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 28, 2023) – As part of a coalition of nonprofit organizations advocating for safe and accessible air travel, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Hand In Hand, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, and the United Spinal Association issued a joint statement in response to a settlement agreement reached by the U.S. Department of Transportation and United Airlines following a complaint from the late disability rights advocate Engracia Figueroa.
In July 2021, Figueroa returned home to Los Angeles after speaking at a rally in the nation’s capital and discovered the airline had severely damaged her custom wheelchair. Stuck in a low-quality manual wheelchair for five hours at the airport, the airline sent her home in an ill-fitting loaner chair. After spending weeks in an improper chair fighting for the airline to fix her wheelchair, Figueroa developed pressure ulcers that became infected and spread to her bones. Despite emergency surgeries, she passed away in the morning on Sunday, October 31, 2021.
“While nothing can erase the pain and suffering Engracia endured, nor bring her back to her family and community, we recognize the actions that United Airlines will be required to take as part of the settlement with the Department of Transportation and see it as an important first step forward in acknowledging the challenges and real dangers that many people with disabilities encounter when they travel by air.
We also see this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of accessible air travel and the ramifications of when it is not. Engracia’s experiences, like those of countless wheelchair users and other people with disabilities, are all too familiar. It is critical that the airline industry better account for wheelchairs and meet accessibility standards with improved handling and stowage options of assistive devices; enhanced complaint processing; and increased training of airline contractors to ensure passengers’ bodily safety.
While today’s announcement is welcomed, much more needs to be done to increase air travel accessibility and prevent injury and loss of life. We must also strengthen enforcement to protect passengers with disabilities; provide a private right of action allowing them to sue; and continue the study into the ability of passengers to fly in their personal wheelchairs. Until that time, we must have more stringent requirements for boarding and deplaning assistance. We call on ALL airlines to step up, do more, and not wait until there is another tragedy (or they are required) to take action.
People with disabilities are tired of hearing that real change is years away. They are also tired of having their custom assistive devices broken and waiting for months on end for them to be fixed. They deserve safe, accessible air travel and to be treated with dignity and respect now. Our goal is to be the voice of all those being treated unjustly and to never again lose someone, like Engracia, because an airline failed to ensure her safety.”
Air travel takes a toll on assistive devices that is vital for survival – over 32,000 wheelchairs were damaged, delayed or lost during air travel between 2019 and 2022. That’s about 31 wheelchairs per day, or like breaking the legs of up to 31 people daily without any timely support. Each incident of a broken wheelchair and scooter can result in a total loss of independence for weeks or months, and in some cases a loss of life, like Engracia. To help stop wheelchair damage and raise awareness of the importance of accessible air travel, PVA launched a new PSA entitled #JustPlaneWrong this week with help from disability rights influencers across the country. Check it out here and visit, PVA.org/AirTravel to learn more.
About Paralyzed Veterans of America
Paralyzed Veterans of America is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and the only congressionally chartered veterans service organization dedicated solely for the benefit and representation of veterans with spinal cord injury or diseases. The organization ensures veterans receive the benefits earned through service to our nation; monitors their care in VA spinal cord injury units; and funds research and education in the search for a cure and improved care for individuals with paralysis.
As a life-long partner and advocate for veterans and all people with disabilities, PVA also develops training and career services, works to ensure accessibility in public buildings and spaces, and provides health and rehabilitation opportunities through sports and recreation. With more than 70 offices and 33 chapters, Paralyzed Veterans of America serves veterans, their families, and their caregivers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Learn more at PVA.org.
About Hand in Hand
Hand in Hand is building a just and caring economy starting in our homes and communities. We support employers of nannies, house cleaners, home care workers, and attendants, their families and allies to understand that their homes are workplaces. We organize people to demand dignity and fairness for domestic workers, and to win public investment in care for families, people with disabilities and older adults. Learn more at www.domesticemployers.org.
About the Reeve Foundation
The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research and improving the quality of life for individuals and families impacted by paralysis. By uniting the brightest minds in the field, we are working tirelessly to accelerate scientific discovery across the field of spinal cord research by investing in labs across the globe. Additionally, through a cooperative agreement with the Administration for Community Living, the Reeve Foundation’s National Paralysis Resource Center (NPRC) promotes the health, well-being, and independence of people living with paralysis, providing comprehensive information, resources, and referral services assisting over 124,000 individuals and families since its launch in 2002. The Reeve Foundation is committed to elevating our community’s voices and needs to achieve greater representation and independence. We meet all 20 of the Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability and hold the BBB’s Charity Seal. For more information, please visit ChristopherReeve.org or call 800-225-0292.
About United Spinal Association
United Spinal Association represents our nation’s 5.5 million wheelchair users. We proudly trace our roots to the paralyzed World War II vets who came home to an inaccessible nation and made it their new mission to create a fully inclusive society. We honor them by using today’s tools to directly provide top-notch service and resources to our members, chapters, and the broader disability community. Visit our website at www.unitedspinal.org and learn more at https://unitedspinal.org/accessible-air-travel/.