A law signed on October 5 to fund the Federal Aviation Administration for the coming five years includes provisions aimed at protecting air travel passengers with disabilities. They include:
- Penalties for bodily harm to passengers with disabilities
- Penalties for damage to wheelchairs or other mobility devices
- Creating an advisory committee to recommend consumer protection improvements, and
- Developing an “Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights”
These sound like positive steps, but I have my doubts.
Here’s the thing. We’ve already got layers and layers of laws and regulations going back almost three decades that protect the rights of travelers with disabilities – that’s long enough to observe that, without meaningful enforcement, it’s all just words.
Back in 2013, we reported on federal Department of Transportation rules, new at that time, that were supposed to vastly improve air travel for people with disabilities. Yet disability-related complaints continue unabated and, as Ace Radcliff, a writer with a disability put it this past summer in the Huffington Post, “air travel for people with disabilities is [still] often a humiliating nightmare.”
It’s certainly true that air travel has become increasingly unbearable for most everyone – for many, it is one of our most hated, most dreaded experiences. Still, whether it’s the airport check-in process, the security ordeal, misplaced baggage fiascoes, or cramped, uncomfortable flights – not to mention the miles of aisles that must be traversed in so many airports – just imagine how much worse any of these are for anyone with a disability or for someone who is frail in any way.
It seems to me that if existing laws were followed – particularly the requirements of the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits disability discrimination in air travel, or the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements to make public accommodations accessible – this latest additional layer of supposed protections wouldn’t be needed. More to the point, I see no compelling reason to believe that a new law will be taken more seriously, be better enforced, or be more effective than those currently being ignored.
Among the many provisions of the 1986 Air Carrier Access Law that are routinely violated and only haphazardly enforced are requirements that airlines:
- Help people with disabilities in boarding, deplaning, making connections and during the flight, including providing ramps and mechanical lifts where needed
- Allow pre-boarding to passengers with disabilities
- Prioritize the storage of wheelchairs and other assistive devices in baggage compartments, and
- Accept and, if necessary, provide packaging for battery-powered wheelchairs
Other laws and regulations require airlines to pay for lost, damaged or destroyed wheelchairs; require that airport kiosks and travel websites be fully accessible; and that airport transport vehicles – such as the vans that take passengers between distant terminals – have wheelchair securement devices like the ones on New York City buses.
When there are already so many laws and regulations addressing the needs of passengers with disabilities that are not enforced, passing new ones has the feel of window dressing to me. Especially because basically, it’s almost always left to the person whose rights have been violated to enforce the law. For example, enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act is primarily driven by complaints from people with disabilities – who often have to hire their own lawyers – and even that process is currently under attack.
In interviews last week a number of people in the disability field were also dubious about the law that was signed this month.
“Unlike the health department that rates restaurants and goes around checking that they’re under code, there is no one to confirm that people are complying,” Janice Lintz, CEO of Hearing Access & Innovations, said. “When you don’t have funding and you don’t have compliance, it’s meaningless.”
John Morris, founder of a travel agency specializing in wheelchair users, made a similar point. He said that many people do not even know that airlines are legally responsible for paying for wheelchairs that they damage, and that the only enforcement is for the person whose wheelchair was damaged to complain to the Department of Transportation, which rarely, if ever, penalizes the airline.
Education is clearly lacking, not only about what is required of airlines and airports under existing laws, but also cultural competency training in how to work with someone with a disability. The way Radcliff was treated by the airport security personnel screening her, as detailed in her article, was not only humiliating and inappropriate, it failed to take her medical condition into account. She writes:
The TSA agent failed to ask me if I had any painful or sensitive areas, a question that . . . I would’ve answered with a resounding ‘yes.’ I have hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a degenerative collagen disorder that causes my joints to dislocate easily and at random. That day, my shoulder was already dislocated, and possibly a rib, too.
Lintz told a similar story. “I know someone with diabetes that uses a device that is connected to her at all times,” she said. “The security screener tried to physically remove it from her body which caused her a lot of pain.”
Against this background of flagrant ongoing discrimination that violates bedrock civil rights laws, it seems to me personally that what’s needed is not another advisory committee or a toothless bill of rights, but a commitment from the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to educate the public agencies and private businesses they regulate and to take widespread, proactive steps to enforce existing laws.