Finding out you are going on a trip and preparing to go to experience a new adventure is exhilarating. You pack your luggage planning what you want to wear for every day of your trip. You ask your self-important questions such as, do I want to pack 1 swimsuit or 2, how many outfits should I bring, and what's the weather going to be like? After packing the perfect suitcase, you continue counting down the days to your exciting adventure until the day has finally arrived.
You drive anxiously to the airport and go through all the motions, of checking your luggage. Your body bubbles with excitement for the trip ahead, you go through airport security thinking about this. After security, you decide to plug your headphones into your phone and you blast, your favorite tunes thinking about your vacation. A vacation that will be relaxing and just what you need to escape from the real world. After a little while of imagining the fun adventure ahead of you, you hear your flight number is called and its time to board the plane. You sit up from your chair and start walking onto your plane, for your perfect trip.
Well, that’s the best-case scenario when you are traveling as a disabled individual. Before taking a trip there are a lot of extra steps that we have to take, to make sure that our trip is assessable as possible. Such as making sure the place that you are going to is completely wheelchair accessible, just because the website says it is doesn’t mean it always is. Also, you have to make sure you have accessible transportation to get to your destination. Whether it is taking an accessible Uber to where you are staying, or having a friend pick you up from the airport who has a big enough car to fit your chair in if you use a manual wheelchair.
So when you get to the airport after making all of those preparations, you want your chair, which is your source of mobility, to be handled properly because it’s not like you can go to target and get a new motorized wheelchair. Most of the time motorized wheelchairs and manual chairs are custom made. They can take a while to get made, and approved by the insurance company and thus after waiting all this time for your chair has become your legs. As it's so integral to you and becomes your way of getting around the world, you don't want it to be broken by the airline that you also, put all your hopes and money on.
Jillian Mercado, disabled model and advocate experienced the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, it's also not the first time the airline failed to handle her motorized wheelchair. Her job requires her to travel a lot and over the past 2 years, she has had similar incidents repeated. In this case, an airline failed to meet her requests in handling her motorized chair. But recently things escalated, as they (JFK’s airport staff) failed to take her instructions that she wrote on the “Claim At Gate Voucher", which is a slip of paper, where disabled individuals can fill out how to best handle their assistive equipment.
Claim at Gate voucher that Jillian posted on Twitter
So when she filled it out she specifically said that her chair does not fold she also verbally told them how to best handle her chair. But they folded it anyway which caused the backside of the chair to fold on itself. In addition to folding the chair, they also pulled some cables in her chair, which in and of itself is a recipe for disaster because the cables in a motorized chair are most likely connected to the battery. To most abled body individuals a wheelchair is just a piece of equipment, but to us, our chairs are our legs and our source of freedom.
When Jillian came out of the plane to her chair in shambles, she documented the event by live streaming it on Instagram. By doing this she was able to bring awareness, on her experience and how airlines need to improve how they handle motorized and manual wheelchairs. Whether it may be a power chair, wheelchair, or even a walker they need to be handled with care. In addition to Instagram, Jillian Mercado also posted about her experience on Twitter asking people to share their #disabledairlinehorror stories, because she wanted to have people speak out. In addition to the advocacy Jillian did on social media, she also garnered so much media attention that JFK Airport responded.
Jillian's Statement that she got from JFK airport after she advocated
Even though they reached out to Jillian, their words are not going to magically fix everything. As a disabled individual, I know what it feels like to have your chair get a repair. Most of the time when your chair has to have a repair, it can take a few weeks depending on the damage and Jillian’s chair has severe damages. This shouldn't have happened because assistive equipment is not meant to be treated like luggage. Most of the times if it can’t fit on the plane which most motorized and manual wheelchairs cannot, it is treated like luggage which in short can lead to parts such as footplates and headrests to come off. In Jillian’s case, far worst occurred.
From December 4th to the 31st 2018, 12 of the largest air carriers damaged or lost 701 disabled passengers, wheelchairs and scooters according to the U.S Department of Transportation. This ongoing issue is bad for both sides (the airport workers and disabled passengers.) Airport workers can get in trouble after countless times of their negligence causing unfortunate incidents to occur. This discourages disabled passengers from flying and not trusting airlines.
So they resort to other means of transportation such as driving, busses, trains, etc. which just takes more time and effort.
As disabled members of our communities, we will make our voices heard as loud as megaphones allow us in crowds to bring awareness and support to reducing these types of incidents and stigma around disabled people. We have to work extra hard for the simple things and just as hard to have our voices heard and that can be tough sometimes. We have to advocate so this can be prevented in the future. So I urge you to be apart of the conversation, and too not let your voice be silenced. As Malala once said, "We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”