Disability Rights Activist Died After Airline Destroyed Wheelchair — Here’s How To Help

Close-up photo of Engracia Figueroa smiling with her hands in front of her mouth

On October 31, 2021 disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa passed away due to complications caused by damage done to her wheelchair by United Airlines.

Last July, Engracia’s wheelchair, which was custom-designed to support her spinal cord injury and left leg amputation, was destroyed by United Airlines. Engracia’s wheelchair was critical to her independence, as well as essential to maintaining her health.

Instead of replacing the wheelchair, United insisted that they would only pay to have it repaired.

What non-disabled people often fail to understand is that a motorized wheelchair which has undergone that much damage poses a severe risk of fire, and is unsafe for its user. 

United provided a loaner chair that was ill-fitted to Engracia which further exacerbated her injuries.

Ultimately, United Airlines agreed to fully replace Engracia’s chair valued at $30,000. However, the months in which they fought against the replacement took a toll on her body.

Because the loaner chair United provided was not properly fitted to her body, Engracia suffered from muscle spasms, body sores, severe edema, and an inability to eat, as well as two additional hospitalizations.

Her sores became infected, and the infection eventually reached her hip bone, requiring emergency surgery to remove the infected bone and tissue. These complications directly caused Figueroa’s death. 

Airlines continually break wheelchairs and fail to support people with disabilities

While shocking and devastating, stories like Engracia’s aren’t rare. The Bureau for Transportation reports that 3.9 million people use wheelchairs and The Air Travel Consumer Report states that 834 wheelchairs were damaged by US Airlines in July 2021 alone, and that airlines damage or destroy 29 wheelchairs per day.

Engracia said in multiple interviews, “Mobility devices are an extension of our bodies. When they are damaged or destroyed, we become re-disabled. Until the airlines learn how to treat our devices with the care and respect they deserve, flying remains inaccessible.”

Air travel with a wheelchair is incredibly inaccessible and impossible for the millions of wheelchair users around the world.

Many wheelchair users do not travel by air at all due to the frequency of damaged wheelchairs, with the costs of replacement being at least $20,000 depending on the model, and is only covered under Medicaid or insurance every 5 years.

How to support the disability community’s fight for safe air travel:

When you hear these stories, you might feel like there’s nothing you can do to make a difference or affect change inside these huge companies — but that’s not true.

When we all come together to use our voices and demand change, companies listen. As their customers, they are accountable to each of us. You have the power to make a difference.

Here are some ways you can help:

1. Sign the petition to hold United Airlines accountable for the death of Engracia Figueroa

In situations like this, justice isn’t possible because justice would mean that Engracia is here with us.

While we mourn the loss of this incredible activist, we can continue her legacy of advocacy by fighting for the civil rights of disabled people.

One of the most simple ways to do that is to sign this petition organized by her organization and others to hold United accountable for their actions and inaction that led to Engracia’s death. 

2. Tell United Airlines (and other airlines) that they need to change the way they handle wheelchairs and disabilities

We know that when consumers speak, brands listen. When we come together and use our voices to speak out about issues we care about, businesses have to pivot and do better. 

Reach out to United Airlines (and other airlines) via Twitter and customer service — to demand that United Airlines hire disabled people and experts to help train their employees from the top down how to accommodate for passengers with disabilities and properly care for wheelchairs. 

The cry of the disability justice movement has always been “Nothing About Us Without Us!” citing that disabled people should always be present when decisions and policies are being made about our well-being. 

When using your social platforms to elevate your concerns about this devastating story, be sure to center people with disabilities and their expertise in your outreach.

Some important talking points may include:

a. Airlines need to hire experts to teach staff how to properly care for wheelchairs

Wheelchair users and their care teams know how to look after wheelchairs because they have to do so. These pieces of equipment cost $20,000+ and are typically only covered by insurance every 5 years so the necessity of treating electric wheelchairs with care is imperative to their independence. 

By hiring disabled people to lead these trainings, they will be able to help team members understand how to handle, transport and store wheelchairs while mitigating risk and eliminating chances of damage to the device.

b. Airlines need to listen to experts in disability safety

We’ve figured out how to bring electric wheelchairs on city buses, subway systems and boats across the world - why is this such a mystery then for commercial airlines? 

Organizations such as All Wheels Up have developed and tested solutions for airlines so that disabled people can stay in their wheelchairs ensuring that their wheelchairs not only do not get broken, but that the individuals also have a safer and more comfortable experience in flight. 

c. Airlines need to hire disabled team members to handle disability-related concerns

United has acknowledged their responsibility for the damage of Engracia’s chair, but the damage of her chair isn’t what ultimately led to her death. 

United’s refusal to listen to disabled people when they say that their proposed solutions will not work due to safety regulations is what caused Engracia to endure months of hardship, sores, and sickness which eventually led to her death. 

By having a team of disabled people and wheelchair users who would have understood the complexities of using electric wheelchairs the catastrophic ending to this story could have been prevented. 

3. Choose not to spend money with brands that don't align with your values

You can send a clear message that this is a priority issue for you by voting with your dollar.

Make a conscious decision to not fly with United Airlines until they come out with a plan to ensure the civil and human rights of all passengers with disabilities are prioritized by employing experts with disabilities to oversee these programs. 

Posting publicly while booking your holiday travel why you are prioritizing other airlines above United will continue to remind them that this is ongoing work they must commit to.

4. Educate yourself and support the disability community 24/7

If you’re new to the topic of disability justice or the disability civil rights movement, a lot of this might be brand new information to you. Welcome to the team, we’re happy to have you! 

One in five people have a disability, yet disability is the least represented marginalized community in media, marketing, and entertainment.

This leaves many people thinking that disability is rare or obscure, but the reality is that not only are we the world’s largest minority group, but we’re also the only marginalized community that you could join at any time. 

At some point in your life either you or someone you love will be disabled, so learning about disability proactively will help you be a better citizen and ally to all people now. 

Some amazing activists and accounts to follow to help expand your knowledge base of disability rights issues are Imani Barbarin, Ashley Harris Whaley, Cripple Media, Alice Wong, and Judy Heumann.

Featured image photo by Shayan Asgharnia, © 2021

Article Details

November 12, 2021 8:06 PM
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