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Lack Of Accessibility On Planes A Concern

Oct. 22, 2014

A national movement is under way seeking to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities who want to embark on air travel. The Vermont Center for Independent Living, a statewide disability rights organization, strongly supports the movement.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits commercial airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. The act does not, however, have any provision to protect the rights of those who, because of their disabilities and for safety reasons, cannot sit in a standard airline passenger seat and must remain seated in their personal wheelchairs.

VCIL Executive Director Sarah Launderville said, “People who use wheelchairs and cannot climb stairs onto an aircraft are put into narrow chairs and on a very steep slope pushed up the ramp. The practice is simply outdated and needs to change. You are putting your life into the hands of someone else to board the aircraft and some people need all of the equipment that is on wheelchairs to be able to fly.”

She added, “These are not the days of when we describe someone as ‘wheelchair bound’ — these are the days where we as a society finally understand that wheelchairs are what allow people to be independent and free.”

Two Texas women have started a petition requesting that people with severe disabilities be allowed to remain seated in their customized wheelchairs when flying and that the Federal Aviation Administration require airlines to designate wheelchair accessible spaces on every commercial aircraft. The petition, which has garnered over 21,500 signatures in two months, will be delivered to President Obama, Congress, the major airlines, aircraft manufacturers and disability rights organizations.

Ash Brittenham of Montpelier is a high school senior who has used a custom-fitted power wheelchair for independence for the past eight years. He said, “I find it extremely unfair that, as it stands currently, I don’t have the option of fast travel like everyone else. I’d like more freedom to get to whatever part of the country whenever without needing to spend countless hours in a car.”

He added, “If a law for accessible air travel is passed, I will be able to vacation in Belize again and/or study abroad.”

Currently, 1.6 million people use wheelchairs in the United States. Of these, over 200,000 use power chairs. The population using wheelchairs is on the rise due to the fact that people with disabilities are living longer. Unfortunately, most wheelchair users currently are forced to travel by motor vehicle due to airplane inaccessibility. In addition, in 2008, one airline spent over $1 million in wheelchair repairs. This can be avoided by not having bag handlers mishandle expensive power chairs that cost between $20,000 and $60,000. This figure excludes the expenses that airlines outlay every year to disabled travelers in lawsuits, free tickets and additional items to prevent lawsuits.

Michele Erwin is the founder and director of All Wheels Up, Inc. (a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advocate for accessible wheelchair flight, with focusing on crash testing wheelchairs for commercial flight). She said, “A large majority of the work and reports have already been conducted regarding crash testing wheelchairs. The FAA would only need to expand on the research already done from the company Q’straint.”

Erwin said hundreds of wheelchair models have already undergone extensive crash testing by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Wheelchair Transportation Safety. “These tests show all chairs have also passed a 20 G frontal crash test, again surpassing the 16G crash test standard for commercial airline seats.”

For more information on the petition, go to: