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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

But Things are Better, Right?

Things are better, right? I am often asked this question by those who know little or nothing about disability. The correct answer is yes. If I state "sorry, but no things are not better in terms of accessibility" I am perceived to be needlessly negative. Others instantly conclude I have lost all semblance of balance because we have the ADA. That law I am told solved all disability related problems. We are world leaders in terms of disability rights. Hence I have no grounds upon which I can complain. I am biting the hand that feeds me. Conveniently ignored is the charity model of disability and how grateful I should be.

Are things getting better? The answer in terms of air travel is no. Things are not better. In fact things are much worse when people with a disability try to fly. Statistics from the 2013 Annual Report on Disability Related Air Travel Complaints demonstrate flying is more difficult for people with a disability. Do not believe me--read the Report of the Secretary of Transportation to the United States Congress, July 2014. Link: Under the Air Carrier Access Act airlines are prohibited from discriminating against people with a disability. Airlines are also required to regularly review all complaints under the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment Reform Act for the 21st Century and report the findings to the Secretary of Transportation.  Complaints are categorized according to the passenger's type of disability and nature of complaint. A disabled passenger is classified as:

vision impaired
hearing impaired
vision and hearing impaired
mentally impaired
communicable disease
allergies (e.g. food allergies, chemical sensitivity)
other wheelchair
other assistive device (cane, respirator, etc.)
other disability

Snarky insert: "other wheelchair". So much for the humanity of the person using said "other wheelchair". The wheelchair is recognized but not the human. Ironically this correct in many ways. If traveling with a bipedal person any question or comment asked is almost always directed toward my travel partner.

The alleged discrimination is characterized as  follows:

refusal to board
refusal to board without an attendant
security issues concerning disability
aircraft not accessible
airport not accessible
advance notice dispute
seating accommodation
failure to provide adequate or timely assistance
damage to assistive device
storage or delay of assistive device
service animal problem
unsatisfactory information

Snarky insert: "Damage to assistive device" translates into airline industry speak for we broke a wheelchair. Airlines have a penchant for breaking wheelchairs of all types and no insurance carrier in the world will insure a wheelchair placed on an airplane. Why do insurance companies refuse to insure wheelchairs? Airlines break them all the time.

Things are better, right? No. In 2013, the most up to date statistics available, U.S. and foreign carriers  reported 25,246 formal complaints. U.S. and foreign carriers were also subjected to 19 cease and desist orders designed to reduce the number of complaints filed and were fined $500,000 for these violations. Here is the statistic that impacts me most directly.  Nearly half of all complaints reported, 11,768, concerned the failure to adequately assist persons that us a wheelchair. The numbers here tell the story:

Complaints circa 2004--10,193

Complaints circa 2013--21,965

Are things getting better? No. Things are much worse. I would suggest that the number of complaints are double if not triple what is reported. Every year airlines are fined for undercounting disability related complaints. Three major carriers were fined $100,000 numerous times for such under reporting.

I think I have established things are worse in terms of air travel. The skeptic might note that travel in the post 9/11 era is worse for all people that set foot on a plane. This assessment is correct. Flying is miserable. Lines are long, security oppressive, and the control measured over people in airline terminals extreme. I accept all this and silently grit my teeth. But this is what others do not see or experience. Trained employees tasked with helping me on and off a plane that cannot speak a word of English. Employees that have no training and are totally unaware of how to get me in an aisle chair. Employees that do not know what an aisle chair is. Broken aisle chairs or an aisle chair cannot be found. None of this includes rude behavior or nasty comments about my existence. None of this eliminates the most common question I now get: Can't you walk a little bit?" When I state "no, I can't walk a little bit" the reaction is muffled shock or utter confusion.

People with a disability that read the above will likely nod their head in sad recognition. Yes, travel for me sucks. The difference is the ingrained and deeply felt hostility the airline industry has for people with a disability. When I assert my civil rights and obviously know the law and am a seasoned traveler this merely increases the animosity directed at me. What I found most interesting is that my least favorite airline, Delta, was the run away winner in the number of complaints it received. American was second. Two airlines I avoid when possible. My favorite airlines, Jet Blue and South West are much further down the list.  So things are definitely not better. I will know things are better when the number of complaints are in the hundreds and not tens of thousands. I will know things are better when I go to an airport relaxed and not feeling as though I am prepping for war. I will know things are better when access is not at the forefront of my mind at all times. I will know things are better when I feel and am treated just like every other bipedal person in the terminal and on a plane. This day is one I sincerely doubt I will see in my life time.