Don't Break my Legs...Handle with Care!


by Jenny Addis



In the beginning of the year, I had the opportunity to fly out to Faulkton, South Dakota for business. Along the way, I ran into a major obstacle: the airline damaged my power wheelchair. Due to this unfortunate event, I discovered some disturbing information that I’m sharing with our mobileWOMEN readers in my "Don't Break my Legs...Handle with Care!" campaign.

I travel frequently and yet, each time I take to the skies, I realize there is a possibility that something may happen to my wheelchair. Nonetheless, I cannot allow that fear to prevent me from flying. In 1997, at the age of 24, a tragic drunk driving accident left me paralyzed from the chest down, stripping away my independence, livelihood, and career. It took time, but eventually I became focused on taking my unfortunate experience and turning it into something positive by beginning a new career. At this point, traveling became a necessity in my life, career and overall independence. Now when I get on an airplane, I only hope that my wheelchair arrives back on the jetway in one piece, wherever my destination is that day.

On this occasion, we landed back in Minneapolis and, as I was waiting on the airplane for the personnel to bring my wheelchair up from stowage, I realized that it was taking quite a long time. Long waits in the past were never a good sign.

My instinct was correct; my wheelchair was damaged. The mishap occurred some time during the loading and unloading process into the aircraft from Milwaukee, Wisconsin or in-flight to Minneapolis, Minnesota, or all of the above. When I was finally escorted off the aircraft in Minneapolis, there were numerous employees standing around my broken wheelchair doing literally nothing. They were lost, which wasn't shocking, because throughout every one of my encounters of wheelchair damage by an airline, one common denominator was a lack of knowledge regarding how to handle this type of situation and empathizing, genuinely, with me, as a consumer.

To make matters worse, Minneapolis was just one leg in my four-flight trip. In those four flights, there were only two employees empathetic towards my situation: the manager who handled my claim in Aberdeen and a loading department employee who brought my damaged wheelchair up from stowage in Minneapolis. Interesting point to make is that I learned both employees have a loved one who is a wheelchair user.

I can't help, but wonder...Is it possible to have empathetic, sincere and genuine employees and management? If so, does that mean they have to be faced with adversity on some level, in order for those qualities to shine through?

My wheelchair was found with luggage on top of it and was lying on its side in the aircraft at least twice, which I found out later from my mobility company is a big “No-No!” To me, whoever put luggage on top of my wheelchair has absolutely no respect for the value of this piece of equipment, not only on a monetary level, but most of all, the physical and emotional connection it serves in its owner's life. In my opinion, the majority of airline personnel and management observe a damaged wheelchair as an inconvenience to the consumer, but something that can be fixed...replaced. The damage is taken very lightly, which is completely inappropriate. Our wheelchairs are made specifically for our bodies, function and physical limitations. The bottom line is that a wheelchair cannot always be fixed on the spot, can include months of waiting and may cause secondary repercussions.

When we landed in Minnesota, the manager didn't show empathy, but rather wanted to move us along as quickly as possible. He gave us a food voucher, which I felt was an insult, because when a consumer is looking at her broken wheelchair...her broken legs....her now stolen independence….a food voucher isn't going to make it better, especially since my wheelchair represented a monetary value of over $30,000.

On my way back to Milwaukee, my wheelchair couldn't be pushed manually, so the loading manager became involved to help figure out a solution on how to transport it down to stowage and safely onto the aircraft. I explained what was broken, visually, on my wheelchair, but without having it assessed, it was unclear to total damages. My main concern was insuring that when I landed in Milwaukee, late that night, I wouldn't have more damages to deal with. Sadly again, I encountered a manager with a bad attitude. He made a verbal scene in front of the other passengers pointing fingers as to why we were running late. Carrying the wheelchair wasn't convenient, but at that point, was the only option. It certainly didn't deserve a negative attitude and remarks on management's part. We needed a resolution. As a consumer, with clearly a position to be upset about, I was able to keep my composure and avoid making a scene in front of the other passengers. What this manager forgot was that I was a paying customer, disabled or not. They broke my wheelchair and as an airline were responsible for those damages.

At this point, I made an executive decision. I offered my caregiver's assistance. Shaina drove my wheelchair down to stowage. What was about to happen next was shocking and disturbing to us both.

I was now sitting on the jam-packed aircraft with an airline employee awkwardly holding me up in my seat. As a C5-C6 quad, I can't hold my torso up, independently, without flopping over like a wet noodle. I needed complete assistance to just sit. The employee was doing his best, but his lack of knowledge to my needs was difficult on me. I felt demeaned in front of the other passengers. I was falling into other's seats and laps. The frustrating point here is that I should've had my caregiver by my side, as she understood my needs; not to mention, I was paying her to assist me. Instead, she was in the stowage area doing the airline personnel's job.

While Shaina was in the loading area, she observed with confusion as four men struggled to lift my 350-pound plus wheelchair into the aircraft, as carefully as possible. The space designated to stow my wheelchair wasn't large enough. My wheelchair sustained scrapes and damages immediately before the aircraft was even off the ground. My best analogy is that these employees are being asked to take a square and fit it into a circle. It can't be done, not safely…not without a distorted square in the end...in my case, a damaged wheelchair. No wonder why the employees are frustrated, acquire bad attitudes and it gets taken out on the consumer.

Usually, I'd take a straight flight to my final destination, because there are only two opportunities to break my wheelchair versus four. In this case, Wisconsin didn't offer a straight flight, so I had no options. I can't help but wonder...Why? Why should a disabled consumer have to worry about possible damage to their wheelchair and direct flights to begin with?

As a consumer, disabled or able-bodied, when I purchased my airline tickets, I assumed that all airlines take every possible measure to be certain my wheelchair and equipment are being protected while in their possession...prior to take off, loading and unloading, take off, in-flight, landing and at my final destination. I assumed the aircraft is equipped to properly transport an electric wheelchair and that it's strapped down in the stowage area. I also assumed that every airline has intentions to give the best customer experience to all its passengers, disabled and able-bodied, throughout the entire flight. Due to experience...I know for a fact that these areas are lacking and inadequate; my experience is not isolated.

As soon as I arrived home, I met with my mobility company to have my wheelchair assessed. We then found the major damage: this type of wheelchair cannot be on its side...ever! The manufacturer will not cover any repairs on a wheelchair that has gone through that kind of trauma. Due to the "mechanical" damages that may occur…if not now, then later.

Ultimately, my wheelchair was deemed unsafe and irreplaceable by my mobility company and the manufacturer. I was fitted for a new wheelchair immediately. It took two months to finally receive my new wheelchair. Apparently, my claim slipped through the cracks, so it took longer than usual to process my claim. Due to the frame damage and seating system being compromised, I was fighting posture and pressure issues, which I'm still fighting today.

Why are these airlines accepting our money and making us believe they can transport our bodies and equipment safely?  I wonder how many people don't make claims, because the damage to their wheelchair wasn't visible. They then go home and the damages arise a week or month later. Are they making so much money cramming us into the aircraft that it doesn't matter if they damage a $30,000-$45,000 wheelchair?

How are these airlines getting away with not accommodating wheelchair user's equipment? It should be disclosed and brought to our attention that their stowage area is not large enough to transport the equipment during the ticket purchasing process. I'd have more respect for an airline saying, "I'm sorry, but this particular aircraft CANNOT accommodate your size wheelchair, but this particular flight and aircraft CAN accommodate you and your wheelchair safely." Would it inconvenience me? Of course, but it inconvenienced me more having a damaged wheelchair during my layover, connecting flight, final destination and trip as a whole.


My Solution

 

I've thought long and hard about solutions and how airlines could avoid wheelchair damage and these unwelcome experiences from happening to their disabled consumers.

 

Here are a few of my thoughts...

 

* Eliminate the first row or bulkhead seating altogether. Use a portable ramp that'll allow us to drive our wheelchairs onto the aircraft and store it at each airport or right on the aircraft.

 

* For every wheelchair space are four designated tie- downs, latches and straps built right into the aircraft floor. They are reused for each and every flight that a wheelchair is on board and can easily be removed if needed.

* For example: In my accessible van, the ramp allows me to roll right in and the passenger seat is removed, which allows me to sit up in front when traveling. There are four tie-downs that are built directly into the passenger side floor. My wheelchair is strapped down in case of an accident or something as simple as slamming on the brakes occurs. My wheelchair and I are protected during transport. These four tie-downs are minimally priced in comparison to the cost of repairs or a brand new wheelchair.

 

* Those uncomfortable aisle chairs that a quadriplegic has an incredibly difficult time stabilizing themselves in could be eliminated altogether. The need for extra personnel to assist with transferring passengers into their seats is eliminated. Boarding time would be minimized. Most importantly, the consumer's wheelchair stays in their possession.


Jenny's damaged wheelchair addressing
the "Don't Break My Legs...Handle with Care!" campaign

 

These positive changes would decrease in wheelchair damages during the loading/unloading processes. They would also lower the number of injury claims made by airline personnel. The lifting hundreds of pounds in confined areas would be minimized as well. It's a difference between tens of thousands of dollars versus hundreds of dollars. I don't think you have to crunch numbers to see the amount of loss the airline is incurring at the end of the day. Overall, it'd heighten the employee's morale, more cost effective to the airlines and an all-around better customer experience.

It's important to point out that all employees, including management and on an owner's level, need to be trained on how to speak respectfully to disabled consumers and how to handle and treat each passenger's equipment, wheelchairs and baggage properly. Employees need to truly understand the value of the equipment, not just monetarily, but on emotional and physical levels, as well.

Obviously, I was disappointed with my broken equipment, but as an individual who cares about customer service, I was extremely frustrated and disappointed with the airline's management and the way my experience was handled as a whole, which is why I am focused on bringing this encounter to everyone's attention. In order to resolve this in its entirety, we need to begin with changing the attitudes of these airline's management, their owners, CEO's, directors, presidents and society, just to name a few.

 

This experience inspired my "Don't Break My Legs...Handle with Care!" campaign. I plan to shed some light on this overlooked issue. I proposed an opportunity to the airline responsible for my recent wheelchair damage, shared my experience and challenged them to take charge of their company. I gave them a unique opportunity. I offered my services to give themselves and their employees the gift of a lifetime...education and awareness...from someone who truly understands. Knowledge is Power! I believe the owners and heads of these airlines must educate themselves in order to make the needed changes necessary within their company to be as successful as possible on all levels. There's more to this solution than just covering my wheelchair damage expenses.

All too often I hear from the airline's personnel that they have had special training on how to handle wheelchairs and wheelchair users, which is a necessity, but in my opinion, unless you are hearing it from the wheelchair users themselves and truly understand what their wheelchair represents, these employees are not getting the information and the facts needed to understand the magnitude behind the words "Don't Break My Legs...Handle With Care!" There are too many stereotypes and misperceptions of wheelchair users as being individuals who are not contributing to society, whose lives are being spent at home or in a facility, definitely not frequent travelers! These assumptions cannot be further from the truth because, today, wheelchair users are successful and on the go. We are looking beyond our disabilities and conquering the world!

My new wheelchair was nearly $45,000! That's a lot of money, BUT (and a huge BUT) there is not a monetary dollar amount that can buy my legs, which is what my wheelchair has become. It's my independence. My freedom. In this day and age, there is no reason why, as a society, we shouldn't be better than this. As disabled consumers, we have the same rights and freedoms as the rest of world, which means accessibility on all levels, whether getting into a building, traveling by land, sea or air. Again, I can't help but ask the question...why?

Here's a great informative article on Traveling Tips I'd like to share with my MW Readers. Go to: http://www.disabledandproductive.com/articles/disabled-travel-how-to-maximize-your-trip-and-minimize-your-worries-when-flying-with-a-wheelchair/.

Here are a few of my favorite personal flying tips:

* We are our own best advocates. You know the condition of your wheelchair and equipment best. Make an assessment prior to loading, so damages are easily detected at your final destination. This rule of thumb is universal with any type of travel. If you are limited with your ability to assess it yourself, then direct someone to do it for you.

 

* Prior to traveling, check with your Mobility Company and manufacturer for any special instructions on how to handle your wheelchair, batteries and equipment properly.

 

* Remove any moveable parts on your wheelchair, such as the hand controls, seat cushion and other accessories, during the boarding process. These parts and accessories will stay in your possession until landing and your wheelchair is waiting at your final destination. Reattach all removed items, prior to getting back into your wheelchair.

* Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance when traveling alone.

 

* Keep a few rolls of Duct tape in your possession at all times--a roll for each airport involved with your travels. After boarding the aircraft, tape every moveable part of your wheelchair to any supportive area, such as cup holders, arm brackets and foot rests. Give a roll to the personnel responsible for taking your wheelchair and equipment down to stowage and direct them to reinforce any moveable parts, at risk of sustaining damages, prior to loading and in-flight.

* Keep in mind that not all damages are external and visible. If you have any reasons to believe your wheelchair or equipment has been damaged or handled inappropriately, ask to speak to a manager immediately. When flying...ask for a Complaint Resolution Officer or a CRO.

 

Overall, traveling, whether it's by land, sea or air will be a challenge for anyone with any type of mobility complications. Don't let that stop you from being active and experiencing the world. That's just not fair to yourself. It's important to be proactive and do your research, so that your traveling experience is as successful as possible.

How do we move forward without these unnecessary occurrences, such as wheelchair damages, from happening? The airlines must accommodate for the sizes of wheelchairs in order to make the necessary changes happen to coexist in the disability world.

 

Update: The airline did not accept my offer. Instead, they sent me a gourmet gift basket and a $100 voucher to fly with them on my next flight. I've learned throughout this investigation that these airlines do understand what they are doing and they really CANNOT accommodate our wheelchairs. Why are they not sharing this information with us when we purchase our seats and allow us the option of taking on the risk of wheelchair damage or not? Shouldn't that be our right?

What do you think? I want to hear from you and your suggestions. Let's make these airlines understand these words..."DON'T BREAK MY LEGS...HANDLE WITH CARE!"

 

I wanted to give a quick shout out to MW Reader, Alexee Denbow:

Hey Jen!
I've read your article, “Hello World!” (http://www.mobilewomen.org/2012/03/helloworld.html) before and every time I read it I tear up...because it’s so much like my story, it’s unreal! I love that you share your life with us (I share but I'm no writer lol). People sometimes just need a reminder that we are not alone!! People tell me all the time that I'm an inspiration and I sit and wonder "why me" sometimes, but when I read your story I understand it. It’s JUST inspiring that’s all! ;)

Hey Alexee!
Just by reading your comments (writer or not) I can tell you are an inspiration!! If you are taking encouragement, motivation and inspiration, from any MW writer, shows that you have the initiative needed to empower your own life. In turn, live a healthy, positive and thriving life despite the adversity you face each day. That's inspiring Alexee! Thank you for being an inspiration and a dedicated MW reader!

 

Sincerely,

Jen

To find more "Hey Jen!" columns, visit www.mobileWOMEN.org/heyjen.  Remember, nothing is too personal in my book, so send your questions to “Hey Jen!” at: mobileHeyJen@gmail.com! Learn more about Jenny at www.InspirationSpeaks.Me.

4 comments:

  1. There is a new product that will protect manual chairs. It is Wheelchair Caddy. I was a "neighbor" to this company at the Houston Abilities Expo and saw the product. Knowing the inventor of this product, Camp Crocker, he would be very interested in hearing what the needs are for your chairs. Perhaps his product can be adapted. Check the product out on Wheelchair Caddy on Facebook.

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  2. Sorry to hear about the mishandling Ms. Jenny. If it helps, maybe next time it happens you could ask the help of someone like an injury lawyer Suffolk county (or wherever you're from) to get claims for property damage.

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  3. Disabled here myself I feel the most accessible airline now is Air Trans, comparing to other airlines. I flew to Mexico for my brother's wedding on that airline, and not only is it good airline but I got 1st class seating since I was disabled now how can you beat that.

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  4. I am sorry to hear about your ordeal. The first thing I would have done is ask for all involved names and what they do for the airline. I find when you have their names, they tend to be a bit more inclined to do more for you. I also find if you tell them maybe if I call the media, they treat you better as well. I know there are numerous outlets that would love to pick up a story like that. See when you have names and threaten to go public, they tend to do more. I have no problem making a scene either. You would be surprised to see the amount of people who would be behind you as well. If you want to discuss this just email me direct at louthechair@aol.com

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