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When Customer Services Becomes Life or Death

Lessons you can learn from a high-profile case of customers living with disabilities.

Airport travel is stressful and unpleasant for most people; for people with disabilities, however, there are even more added layers of complications and even potential danger.

Wheelchair users are not able to bring their wheelchairs onto the plane with them, and they must be stored underneath the plane in the cargo hold. Often, in the process of transporting the wheelchair to and from its owner, they are damaged or even destroyed due to improper handling by staff.

This is a regular occurrence, as “according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), roughly 29 wheelchairs and scooters were either damaged or lost every day in 2019” and over “15,425 wheelchairs and scooters have been lost or destroyed by airlines since reporting was required at the end of 2018.”

These wheelchairs, which may be the only way a disabled person is able to navigate the world, are often worth tens of thousands of dollars; although the airport staff is legally responsible for footing the cost of repairs, these repairs can take weeks, leaving the owner with a temporary loaner wheelchair, which may not adequately meet their mobility or support needs. According to the Washington Post, “travelers who have a wheelchair that gets destroyed could lose mobility for months… and may face a loss of wages, health complications or other ramifications that would not be covered by an airline.”

Less than a year ago, a disability rights advocate, Engracia Figueroa, died after her $30,000 custom-fit wheelchair was severely damaged by United Airlines. In the weeks it took to repair her own chair, she developed a pressure sore due to her temporary, ill-fitting chair. This led to an infection and ultimately to her death at the young age of 51. This was the fourth time her wheelchair had been damaged on a flight, and this time, it was fatal.

The fear of damage or destruction of their very necessary mobility aids prevents many disabled people from choosing to travel at all, even in emergencies. Not only does this obviously prevent disabled people from being able to travel freely, it also is ultimately costing the airlines in missed revenue opportunities.

This is poor customer service in its most extreme form. Airlines must take more than financial responsibility for repairing these damages after they’ve already occurred; they must prevent them from happening altogether. Airline staff must be more thoroughly trained in handling and transporting the wheelchairs safely and efficiently, with an understanding that this is precious cargo.

In the unfortunate event of any damage, airlines must assist with getting repairs done immediately, providing the best quality temporary equipment in the meantime. Organizations like Hand in Hand are advocating for improved accessibility regulations, but the onus of responsibility should not be on disabled people to advocate for ourselves. These massive corporations must take accountability for their errors and learn to treat their disabled customers with dignity and respect.

This poor customer service can result in more than hurt feelings and bad Yelp reviews; it can, and has, led to serious injury and death. While perhaps there may be less dire consequences to discounting accessibility at your own business, it’s important to consider that small actions caused by ignorance or micro-aggressions that seem inconsequential to you can have much broader effects on people with disabilities than you might expect.