Terrifying and Uncomfortable: The Struggles People with Disabilities Face while Flying

Terrifying and Uncomfortable: The Struggles People with Disabilities Face while Flying

Article by Allison Norlian

A silhouette of a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a woman through an airport terminal.

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities can travel on public transit including trains, buses, ride shares, and taxis.

However, a large barrier remains when it comes to air travel – which is exempted from the ADA.

Lora Glassman, an Easterseals Southern California (ESSC) associate and active participant, worries whenever she has to fly. From the discomfort of having a stranger transfer her from her wheelchair onto the plane, to inaccessible bathrooms, and the anxiety about whether the airline will lose or break her chair, Lora said traveling can often be a nightmare.

“It feels like the airlines don’t care about anybody’s (wheelchair). They just throw it in there, and they don’t care,” Lora said.

Barbara Glassman to the left of her daughter Lora.

(L to R): Barbara Glassman and Lora Glassman

Over the years, Lora and her mother, Barbara, have traveled many times across the country. When Lora was a child, Barbara could easily transfer Lora to her plane seat, and her smaller wheelchair could be stored in the plane cabin. But as she got older, that reality changed.

“It can be uncomfortable when the TSA agents transfer Lora from her wheelchair onto the plane,” Barbara said. “It can be an especially awkward situation because a lot of times it’s men transferring her, and they’re physically handling her.”

Also, as Lora grew, her wheelchair got bigger, and now gets stored in the plane hold. Over the years, parts would come up missing, resulting in Barbara detaching removable parts and bringing them onto the plane. During one trip, the airport attendant brought up Lora’s wheelchair from the plane hold, and it was missing a brake.

“I said, ‘this is a $6,000 custom wheelchair. I’m not leaving it at the airport for some unknown company to fix. That’s not acceptable,’” Barbara said. “And I’m not taking a loaner chair; that will not work for her.”

Lora sitting in her chair

Lora in her chair

People with disabilities often describe mobility devices as “extensions of their bodies.” Lora calls her wheelchair “her legs.” These devices are customized for each person’s needs to prevent injury and illnesses like pressure sores. Because of the customization, they are typically expensive and difficult to replace.

“Because of that experience where they broke my chair, it’s always terrifying to fly because they might lose it,” Lora said. “And if they lose it, I can’t go anywhere.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation, 27 million passengers with disabilities traveled by air in 2019. In 2021, DOT received 1,394 disability-related complaints, a 54 percent increase from 2019.

In 2018, Congress demanded that airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) make flying better for people with disabilities. Easterseals also advocates tirelessly for accessible air travel.

A photo of Erin Hawley

Erin Hawley, National Easterseals Advocate

Erin Hawley, an advocate for National Easterseals who also has a disability, said she’s never been on a plane because of her worries about what could happen.

“I want to have independence if I’m flying and not have to rely on the help of others,” Hawley said. “And if they lost my chair, and I didn’t have my chair, I would not be able to get out of bed and work and go out and, you know, live my life.”

A photo of Kendra Davenport

Kendra Davenport, National Easterseals President and CEO

“Accessible travel represents freedom and personal agency for people with disabilities, and yet barriers to transportation exist that impact people living with disabilities every day,” said Kendra Davenport, president, and CEO of Easterseals. “Think about how your life would be impacted if you couldn’t readily or easily go on vacation, or see family and friends. It would negatively impact your mental and physical well-being, and it does have negative effects on people living with disabilities across America.”

People with disabilities say the modifications airlines and airports have to make to ensure accessible travel are simple and will help people – disabled or not.

“Let us take our chairs onto the plane and train staff to understand the importance of our devices and to treat them with care,” Erin said. “Also, have sensitivity training and have the airport and airline staff speak to somebody with a disability.”

“They need to train people and make them understand that we are people, we have specific needs, and we need to be treated equally and fairly,” Lora said.

Easterseals is advocating at the federal level for the airline industry to join other transportation providers in becoming accessible. Learn more about our efforts in our State of Disability Equity and Access Report being authored by the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy & Innovation at Loyola Marymount University Law School through support from Voya Financial.

About the Author:

Allison Norlian is a three-time Emmy-nominated journalist, writer, and co-founder of BirdMine, a production company focused on amplifying the voices and stories of people with disabilities and other groups underrepresented within society. With BirdMine, Allison films, edits, reports, and produces, creating short and long-form documentaries. Allison became a journalist and filmmaker to speak for those who are often voiceless, like her severely disabled sister. She won a Catalyst for Change award from the ARC of Virginia for the impact of her reporting and an Emmy nomination for an investigation exposing neglect and abuse at an assisted living facility. 

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