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Air Traveling on a Wheelchair is a Nightmare: Here’s Why

Wheelchair air travel

Traveling for wheelchair users has never been this efficient – thanks to the efforts of disability rights advocates. In fact, we are now closer than ever in making all transportation services – from land to air – 100% wheelchair accessible.

However, our mission to all-inclusive transportation is far from finished. Simply making these services available to the handicapped community is not enough, one should consider the processes that these people have to endure. And obviously, the system is full of flaws.

One of the most notable source of frustrations among adventurous wheelchair users is air travel. For the majority of them, the experience of flying is stressful, painful and sometimes humiliating. For some, it is simply impossible.

“When you hear about the injuries and the discomfort and the embarrassment that wheelchair users have faced when flying,” 27-year-old Shane Burcaw says, “it becomes pretty obvious that they’re not being treated in a very humane way with these rules.”

There are various reasons as to why airplanes can be extremely excruciating for people with disabilities. But if they’ll be given a chance to ask one question, most wheelchair users would agree to one thing: why can’t they use their own wheelchairs on planes?

Indeed, regulations prohibit passengers from sitting in their own wheelchairs on planes. As a result, airplanes remain stubbornly inaccessible. But the explicit rationale behind the regulations involves safety. Last year, a major airline industry group explained that aircraft seats need to meet rigorous safety regulations that include survivability at several times the force of gravity. “So at the present time, these certified aircraft seats are the only permissible seating for all passengers.”

Furthermore, the group added that other modes of transport don’t have that kind of certification. “This is why trains or buses, for instance, can accommodate a wider range of options.”

While it is certainly true that airplane seats can withstand forces several times the force of gravity. But so can wheelchair restraint systems. In fact, in many cases, they have a more exacting standard than your typical airplane seat.

“Airplane seats are designed for the quote-unquote average person,” disability rights activist Emily Ladau says. “I’m nowhere near the quote-unquote average person.”

Airplane safety standards have a long, fractious history in the United States. The safety vs. inclusion debate has gone on for decades among industry players, regulatory bodies, and experts in crash survivability.

Such concern spurred a new push to finally make air travel more fair and accessible. Whether and how soon that might happen, however, is difficult to say.  In the end, carving out a place for wheelchairs airplanes depends on the economics, politics, and physics that underlies every square inch of airplane design.

However, for disability advocates, change cannot come soon enough.

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