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Traveling with a wheelchair not worth the risk for thousands of Americans with disabilities

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Posted at 9:33 AM, Jul 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-23 12:33:38-04

TAMPA, Fl. — Buses, trains and other modes of public transportation have to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires people using wheelchairs can get around.

But the airline industry doesn’t have to follow those rules. They’re able to follow an older law: the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986.

Even though the act has been updated since 1986, many say it still doesn’t do enough to accommodate people with disabilities.

As more travelers are heading to the airport, now that COVID-19 restrictions are going away, there’s an even bigger push for the airlines to be more accessible to all, especially for those now in wheelchairs who served our country, like LTC Phil Price.

Price served in the Air Force his entire career. He traveled the world for decades, but his flying days were eventually grounded by his body.

“In 2000, Phil was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he had already been primarily diagnosed with MS [Multiple Sclerosis],” said Phil’s wife of more than 30 years, Debbie. “The brain tumor affected the same motor areas the MS, so his mobility was greatly affected.”

Eventually, in 2009, his brain tumor came back. It was surgically removed, but the combination of cancer and the MS forced Price to begin using a wheelchair.

“It was advised that we don't treat the MS due to, that was the theory what was keeping his brain tumor at bay, so he did not take any treatments,” said Debbie. “So, the MS has slowly over time, that's what's kind of ravaging the body now.”

But Price’s body has some reinforcements: a custom wheelchair gives him the ability to move and to travel by car.

“The VA provides it, but it's about a $25,000 to $30,000 chair,” explained Price. “So, you're not talking about, you know, something that can be easily replaceable.”

Because of that, it’s forced the man who used to fly often to make a tough choice.

“We've chosen not to fly because of the risk of damaging the chair,” said Debbie. “We get off the plane, and the chair is damaged. There's nothing we can do about it at that point. I can't carry him. He can't walk. He can't transfer, so we would be stuck.”

The chair is one worry, but physical safety is another.

“They have to physically pick you up and put you into their airline chair, and it's just, Phil just doesn't want to go through that, you know, it's kind of humiliating. It's embarrassing,” said Debbie, turning to her husband. “I’m kind of speaking for you."

A study conducted by the wheelchair advocacy group All Wheels Up found that 80% of people using wheelchairs never even come to the airport because it’s just too risky.

The risks have become even more apparent since the federal guidelines changed in 2018, requiring that airlines report how many chairs they damage every single day.

The data revealed airlines are breaking and damaging an average of 29 wheelchairs per day. Law requires the airlines to pay for repairs and replacements, but there is no time constraint. This leaves many families fearful their absolutely necessary mobility equipment will be unavailable for just too long.

“I knew that it was a problem, but it was far worse than I thought it was,” said Price.

On top of the damage, accessibility throughout the airport and inside the plane itself is another barrier stopping would-be travelers in wheelchairs.

“Many people think that the ADA covers air travel, and it doesn't. The ACAA [Air Carrier Access Act], which was created four years before the ADA, covers air travel for people with disabilities, and so that's why there isn't a wheelchair spot on airplanes,” explained Michele Irwin, the founder and CEO of All Wheels Up.

Irwin and Alan Chaulet, a board member of the group, are working to get a wheelchair spot installed on new airplanes and usable bathrooms for people in wheelchairs.

“Some people with disabilities, like they don't drink water the whole day, they travel, they don't eat food just to prepare their bodies for that,” said Chaulet, who uses a chair himself and has experienced this firsthand.

“They cannot just book their ticket online like everyone else,” explained Irwin. “They usually have to call the airlines and book their ticket on the phone, let them know the airline that they're coming with a wheelchair, make sure that they're going to have somebody on staff at that time who has familiarity with handling a wheelchair.”

But changing accessibility could help those in wheelchairs feel less isolated.

“It's sad because, like, I missed my sister's wedding and my family went without me,” said Chaulet. “I missed some of my cousin's weddings. And, yeah, that's very tough. It shouldn't have to be like that.”

The Price family agrees.

“It'd be nice to be able to go in and have that freedom, have that freedom, not feel trapped,” said Debbie.

Irwin said more accessible planes could also save airlines money.

“One airline in 2016 spent $1.6 million on wheelchair repairs and placements,” she said.

A wheelchair spot would cut those costs and open the door to thousands of new airline customers.

“Now, that family, instead of driving to their destination, is now going to have that opportunity, which they never had before, to fly,” she said.

Bottom line aside, it’s equity families and advocates alike want to see.

“It's all about him feeling comfortable, him feeling like a human-like everyone else, not feeling different,” said Debbie Price of her husband. “It doesn't take just the people, the disabled people in the world to speak up to say we need better changes on the airline industry. It takes every day, normal people to speak up.”

For Phil Price, these changes would mean a trip to see his daughter living out of state in Atlanta, or the chance to go somewhere just for fun.

“New York or something,” he said of a place he’d like to visit.

And even though the day he will fly again seems far away, he has hope he will see the world from the air once again.

“Well, you have to have hope,” he said.

As the nation opens up and travel seems busier than ever, this family hopes every able-bodied traveler will recognize the luxury of being able to fly anywhere.

"I would hope that people would just be grateful that they have that freedom, because there's a lot of people that don't have that freedom. They've lost that freedom," said Debbie.