Engracia Figueroa's death shows why flying with a wheelchair is scary

51-year-old disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa died after United Airlines destroyed her wheelchair

It was 2018 and my family was planning a vacation to California. But the most important question was the hardest to answer: how would we get there? The days-long drive made flying the most enticing and obvious option, but hearing horror stories about airlines destroying wheelchairs complicated things. The possibility of a stranger welcoming us to San Diego apologizing for the wires popping out of the remote was clear. It painted an image that had us questioning whether it was worth going at all. 

We spent days and weeks -- and even the moments leading up to our ticket purchase -- mulling over what to do, reading over aircraft regulations and even searching for a wheelchair that would give us the most luck. I could envision loading crews rolling my red and gray scooter under the plane and then proceeding to throw bags on top of it as they rushed. I envisioned the heaviest bag of the load being tossed and cleanly hitting my joystick.

We ultimately elected to fly, bringing one of my old wheelchairs. But it didn't make the process any easier -- this wheelchair, like the other, was not immune to carelessness. We read blogs, forums, social media, holding the possibility that someone found the secret. Nothing. The day before we left, my parents attached a laminated note to the right of the chair, hoping to instill empathy in the staff. It read, “please be cautious because these are my son's legs.” 

My family, my wheelchair and I ended up traveling safely, fortunately. But we haven't flown since -- we are hesitant to. A single flight could have months of consequences, and there's little an individual can do except wallow in the numbers, afraid of becoming part of the gut-wrenching statistics. The country's largest airlines reported mishandling 10,548 wheelchairs and scooters in 2019, and while that number decreased to 3,464 in 2020, we cannot celebrate when 3,464 people lost their wheelchairs, freedom and control because of ableism. 

It's even more than that, though. This is costing human lives. The fears I had instantaneously became reality for 51-year-old disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa.  For Figueroa, it didn't mean a ruined vacation but instead the end of life. She literally died because of this on October 31 after representing Hand in Hand, an organization that advocates for domestic workers, at the Care Can't Wait rally in Washington, DC back in July. On her way back home to Los Angeles, United Airlines workers accidentally destroyed her customized wheelchair. 

Figueroa, who had a spinal injury and a leg amputation, as many disabled people do, needed her body supported in a certain way. As she sat in the manual wheelchair the airport provided, she struggled to balance. According to Hand in Hand, she developed a pressure sore after five hours in the chair, experiencing pain and going to the hospital. The sore developed an infection, which spread to her hip bone, per the organization, and the ensuing pain caused muscle spasms and additional hospitalizations. Doctors tried to save her life with emergency surgery, but she eventually passed away.

This is disgusting. Disgusting because it was avoidable. Disgusting because it's 2021 and disabled people still cannot take an airplane without worrying about corporations taking their lives or humanity. Disgusting because Figueroa spent months suffering as United Airlines fought the case. Disgusting because some will see that United ultimately agreed to replace her wheelchair and wonder why the disability community is still angry. Let me explain

Every wheelchair isn't the same; each one is unique to the person it seats. Each person needs different types of supports -- for instance, some need side supports, while others need chest straps -- and each chair is fitted to the individual it belongs to. So getting a new wheelchair isn't simple; it takes months. It's a process we, physically disabled people, have imprinted in our brains -- featuring a doctor's note, multiple consultations, notes from therapists to justify our specific needs and a months-long waiting period as the chair is built. The damage is more than financial. Not having a wheelchair means not having your dignity, your full humanity. Figueroa went months in without her dignity -- spending the final months of her life in excruciating pain. 

In 2021, we must be asking ourselves: why don't disabled people have the right to fly without risking their freedom, lives and livelihoods? It's not about weight concerns -- there is no weight limit for who can fly. We don't make those who weigh a certain amount sit with the baggage. It's not that it would be unsafe to build lifts on planes -- or lift for planes. There are already thousands of pounds of metal holding the plane together.

But here's what I think it is: the values engraved into our culture -- in America and elsewhere -- indicate that disabled people don't travel. We don't go on business trips. We don't go on family vacations. When those things happen, society says, we're away from the action. It is, therefore, not important to address this issue. Going deeper, though, aircraft companies, others in power and nondisabled people in general do not see wheelchairs as the freedom machines that they are. They simply don't understand that the machines are not simply our legs, but they're extensions of our bodies, that the machines are the springboards we vault off. They simply don't understand one snipped cord could mean months of setbacks, anger, and frustration. They don't understand that a destroyed wheelchair is a destroyed life. 

This is ableism at its best. Ableism is deadly. It is actively killing people with disabilities. Each day, every day. Inflicting pain, emotional, physical and mental. Taking livelihoods. And ignoring itself and the wounds it creates, even when it, in and of itself, is a gaping wound gushing the blood that is the promise of equity, inclusion and accessibility. Ableism killed Figueroa. It wasn't a mistake; it was a tragedy waiting to happen.