September 18, 2018 | Benard Bampoh, 2018 AAPD Summer Intern
In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Air Carrier Access Act, enabling people with disabilities to travel on airplanes with assistance from airport agents upon request. But air travel today still poses many discouraging challenges for disabled people. The process of traveling with a disability must be changed to make room for excitement and the desire to explore.
According to this one pager from Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, more than 30,000 disability-related complaints were filed with airlines in 2015 alone. Some common reasons for complaints are damages to assistive devices and delayed assistance at airports. Disabled people are not excited about air transportation the way it is now.
An airport agent explained that some disabled people also feel like a burden when requesting assistance, making them less likely to travel. That is not an unfounded concern because many reported agent injuries result from physically transferring disabled passengers on and off airplanes. If the agents get hurt, one can only imagine the endured experience of the person with a disability.
With the psychological tension of being a burden, and the helpless frustration at a destroyed freedom-giving assistive device, current air travel is simply not worth the hassle for disabled people. But as societies grow increasingly interconnected, those who travel will have fuller lives. Thus, an amendment is needed. The process of traveling with a disability must be changed to make room for excitement and the desire to explore.
Thankfully, the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act strives for that. It was introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin in 2017 and by House Representative James Langevin in 2018. A summary is provided at congress.gov. Congress is yet to approve it. Should the bill pass, airplanes would be made wheelchair accessible (like public ground transportation now is, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act). Wheelchairs would be secured inside plane cabins with all the other chairs. The Air Carrier Access Amendments Act would solve four problems:
- Significantly disabled people could stay in their wheelchairs, which are—by design—the most supportive place for us. Air travel would no longer involve loss of physical stability and comfort.
- Airport agents would avoid injuries from transferring disabled passengers from their wheelchairs to aisle chairs to plane seats, and then repeating the whole process in reverse when the flight is over.
- Airport agents would avoid injuries from lifting heavy wheelchairs and other assistive devices into the plane’s cargo or storage compartment. Some airports do not have lifts to assist in loading items into the plane. At such airports, the strength of the agents would be preserved for lifting baggage, not assistive devices.
- Airport agents would not need to handle expensive assistive devices and risk damaging them.
In short, wheelchair accessible planes will be good for airport agents as well as disabled passengers. Air travel is an exciting and exploratory experience for non-disabled (temporarily able-bodied) people. It can be the same for physically disabled people thanks to the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act.
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Benard Bampoh is a 2018 Summer Intern. He interned with American Airlines at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.