From Kevin Williams, CCDC Civil Rights Legal Program Director
I won’t be joining you, but thanks for the invitation.
As we all know, there is “no place like home for the holidays.” So why is it that I and so many of my friends, colleagues, clients and CCDC members who use motorized or other wheelchairs can’t join you and yours for such festivities at your inaccessible house? The answer is simple. You hate us. No, I’m just kidding. The real reason is the law does not apply to “single-family homes,” meaning homes do not have to be accessible to people who use wheelchairs. (For those who don’t speak legalese, “single-family homes” mean “houses.”) So, thank you very much for your invitation, but unless you plan to throw me a turkey leg while I sit in your front yard longingly peeking in the window and seeking to enjoy everyone’s company around the Thanksgiving table, I will be unable to make it.
I know, I know. You have no problem carrying me up the stairs to get in your front door, but my motorized wheelchair weighs a few hundred pounds, and, after using a wheelchair for 33 years and eating (perhaps too much) at Thanksgiving dinners over the years, I’m not as svelte as I once was either. So “carrying” those of us who use wheelchairs is not only demeaning, but dangerous.
Finally, you might want to check your homeowner’s insurance policy before considering this option:
Even those of you with the best intentions (those who want to carry us) sometimes fail. This usually disrupts the holiday meal as well.
And yes. Maybe those cool foldout ramps that I carry around in my van for just such occasions might get me in the front door, but we should probably consider the ramifications of our situation if I have to use the restroom. Any thoughts about what I should do there? My guess is that the bathrooms in your house are probably not accessible. Beyond that, even if I get up this first step, often there are many more once I get inside. The ramps don’t always work. In fact, the first picture shows three steps leading to a porch with yet another step to the front door. My ramps definitely would not work under the circumstances.
But don’t worry! It is not your fault! I’m not going to sue you (well, I guess that depends on who invites me). It is simple. The federal and state Fair Housing Acts do not require your house to be accessible. Even if it was built last week. You have no legal obligation to provide me with an accessible house.
When I have tried to work with legislators to address this issue, I have found that I meet with great resistance from a constituency most legislators have called “home builders associations.” What they say is people can’t sell their house if it looks like a “handicap house,” and people surely don’t want to live in a “handicap house;” after all, they are so ugly. But is that true? Does having a single ramp or a flat, level entrance or 32-inch wide doors or a restroom that has enough room to accommodate an accessible toilet and/or a roll-in shower really cause some sort of depreciation in the value of your home? Does anyone have any data to back this up? I think not, but data and evidence do not seem to matter much these days so I guess we will just take the word of the home builders association. In point of fact, as an individual who has sold an accessible property, I can tell you on a personal level, those features actually increased the resale value. This is in part because accessibility opened up the opportunity of homeownership to a wider market of people. The person who bought my last home was an individual who used a wheelchair. Because I had created a van-accessible parking space in the garage in the building and built a roll-in shower, and because the home was a condominium that is required to meet minimal Fair Housing Act requirements (e.g., there was a ramp to the front door), the buyer found these features to be very helpful and something he could not find everywhere else he had looked.
Here’s the deal: the federal and state Fair Housing Acts require very minimal accessibility features. Also, those very minimal accessible features only apply to multi-family housing (essentially, apartments and condominiums). In these multifamily housing units (the requirement is four or more units connected together either on one level ore by an elevator), there are seven basic requirements, and they are very minimal as set forth in the Fair Housing Act Design Manual.
Single-family homes ARE NOT REQUIRED TO BE ACCESSIBLE AT ALL! There is no requirement in the federal or state Fair Housing Acts that any access be provided. (By the way, don’t be confused. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to housing — at least not what I am discussing here.) There is also a state law in Colorado that requires some things related to accessibility that are not included in the Fair Housing Act, but even these do not apply to single-family homes. The bottom line is houses simply are not required to be accessible by any law. Guess what? As a result, they aren’t accessible. Not even a little bit. Very many of us who use wheelchairs are simply excluded from an enormous amount of everyday, normal human activity that the rest of you take for granted.
Why?! There is no good reason with respect to newly-designed houses. It is much more complicated and expensive to remodel a house to make it accessible than it is to build the house that way in the first place.
Stop for a moment and think about all of the activity that occurs inside your or a family member’s house. The holidays and all of the get-togethers with family and friends during this time of year simply exclude a large and growing portion of the population who use wheelchairs and who cannot access many houses. Unfortunately, because of the resistance to incorporating a handful of simple design features into newly constructed houses, your homes are no place for us for the holidays. And let’s put holidays aside. Think of how much human activity occurs inside people’s house — where people get together for almost any social experience you can imagine. Beyond that, I keep hearing about many of my friends who can walk who have been out “door-knocking” for candidates running for office. (I hear this kind of stuff is really popular in places like Iowa.) But I can’t even do that because I can’t get to your door. I can’t get into my neighbors’ houses to even say hello because their front doors are not accessible.
I was able to buy a house that was made accessible, in large part, by the previous owner before I moved in. I have continued to make accessibility improvements in the 10 years I have lived there. I find the fact that hardly anyone has addressed the issue of providing accessibility to single-family homes a little strange because my friends and family who can walk love my accessible house. My house (built in 1957) has been converted in many different ways to be accessible to people who use wheelchairs. I have a large ramp with shrubbery in front of it at the front door. I have another ramp in the garage so I can get to my accessible van. Many of the kitchen counters have been lowered and have open space underneath them so people use wheelchairs can get to the sink and the stove. The vast majority of the doorways to my house are at least 32 inches wide, and I have an enormous concrete deck with a hot tub built-in so someone can either transfer from a wheelchair directly to the hot tub or use the lift I had installed. The house has two bathrooms. One of them has a roll-in shower. The other one has a bathtub. (Most houses built these days would have glass-enclosed showers that would have to be totally ripped out and redesigned if the house were to be used by someone who uses a wheelchair. Many of my family and friends who have stayed at my house have used my roll-in shower without complaint. After all, it is just a shower.) In fact, there is nothing about any of the accessible features of my house that makes them inaccessible to people who do not use wheelchairs. I don’t think most people even notice. More often than not, my houseguests who do not use wheelchairs who walk say they really love the open spaces and wide doors and other access features. So many of my friends who are not tall love the lowered counters. The accessible deck (accessible by French doors from the living room and sliding glass doors from the master bedroom) with ramps to the yard and to the sidewalk that leads up to the gate is fantastic. Why would you not want these features? What is wrong with a “handicap house?”
On top of all of that, it is so much more expensive to make a house accessible after it has already been built to be inaccessible. Even widening a door to make it 32 inches can be an extremely costly endeavor and sometimes almost impossible.
Here is another consideration. Have you ever moved a couch or a bed or a refrigerator? Having a ramp, 32-inch-wide doors and wide-open spaces throughout your house make it much easier to accomplish this task. The moving company that moved me into my house said it was the easiest move they had ever made. What is it about stairs that is so cool? Why do we have them? They seem dangerous. Maybe they are.
Now, of course, no one would INTENTIONALLY exclude us, would they? I mean you have been actively lobbying your state and federal legislators and asked them to require that single-family homes be made accessible, haven’t you? I thought so. You would never want to discriminate against us.
Why haven’t we done that? Are the home builders right? Is there something disgusting about the so-called “handicap house?” Do a couple of grab bars next to the toilet just make you sick to your stomach? Does this all stem from some deep-seated fear that you all might need to use those accessible features in the future and you refuse to accept that?
You really should check it out because you could get your state or local or even national legislators to sign on to the concept of “visitability.” This just means that all houses must be designed and constructed with basic accessibility features, including a zero-step entrance, wide passage doors, and at least a half-bathroom on the main floor that meets basic Fair Housing Act requirements. As the word suggests, the idea behind visitability is to make your home accessible enough that your friends, family and loved ones who use wheelchairs can visit.
This is one of those flat, level entrances I mentioned. Pretty hideous, isn’t it? I mean, who in the world would want to live in a house with that atrocious flat level entry? It is so disgusting!
Yuck! Who could live like this? There goes the neighborhood!
Repulsive! Now we’ve gone too far!
Certain U.S. cities and even the United Kingdom have adopted various types of visitability laws that require some measure of very simple accessibility be incorporated into the design and construction of all new housing. Austin, Texas, for example, has an ordinance that applies to any permit for construction of a new single-family or duplex dwelling with habitable space on the first floor and requires that house must meet certain visitability requirements., 
Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate your invitation, but I will not be attending because I can’t get in the front door (or any other door) and I can’t use the restroom. I’m going to my boss’s house. She uses a wheelchair. So does her partner. Their house is pretty darned accessible. I look forward to having Thanksgiving dinner with my friends and colleagues, many of whom use wheelchairs, at my friend’s house. When I go there, I can get in the house, I can have Thanksgiving dinner with my friends and colleagues; I can even use the restroom. Isn’t that crazy? Having people who use wheelchairs come to your house for a holiday gathering? Seems silly, right? I ask everyone reading this who owns a home that is not wheelchair accessible to stop and think how many times you have your friends and family visit you at your home. Now, stop and think about whether a friend or family member who uses a wheelchair could join you. Now, stop and think about what you’re going to have to do when you need accessible features in your house.
And, seriously, I thoroughly understand and completely confess there may be many reasons why you would not want me to be at your Thanksgiving dinner table, but are you really going to use the “my house is not wheelchair accessible” excuse? I mean this is getting old. You know somebody who uses a wheelchair who cannot easily access your house and use basic facilities like the restroom. Admit it! Do you just not invite that person, or do you go through great difficulties getting that person in and out of your house and dealing with the restroom situation?
Happy Thanksgiving! And special holiday wishes to you and yours if you are part of a home builders association that has actively opposed any legislation requiring or encouraging the advancement of visitability features in newly designed and constructed homes. It would be a shame if you hurt yourself carrying a relative up your front stairs for Thanksgiving dinner. And please be careful not to trip on one of those steps.
Maybe I will swing by after all. What are you having for dessert?
November 26, 2019
 Trust me, this is their language and not mine. I would never use that word in describing a house, but that is what they say.
 https://www.huduser.gov/portal/publications/PDF/FAIRHOUSING/fairfull.pdf (visited Nov. 25, 2019).
 See “Injuries and stairs occur in all age groups and abilities,” a 2017 article published by Reuters, claiming that, “More than 1 million Americans injure themselves on stairs each year, according to a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine,” at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-injuries-stairs/injuries-on-stairs-occur-in-all-age-groups-and-abilities-idUSKBN1CE1Z4 (visited Nov. 25, 2019).
 See, e.g., “Increasing Home Access: Designing for Visitability,” published by the AARP in 2008, at https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/il/2008_14_access.pdf (visited Nov. 25, 2019). Page 32 provides a listing of locations that have enacted laws or ordinances. I want to stress that I have not investigated the correctness or authenticity of references to laws or ordinances requiring visitability. The purpose of these references is to allow the reader to get a glimpse of what is possible.
 Ordinance No. 20140130-021 R320 “Visitability,” http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=205386 (visited Nov. 25, 2019).
 See “Accessibility and Visibility Features in Single-family Homes: A Review of State and Local Activity” by Andrew Kochera, published in March 2002 by the AARP Public Policy Institute, a division of the Policy and Strategy Group at AARP. https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/il/2002_03_homes.pdf (visited Nov. 25, 2019).
Nearly three decades after a landmark federal law mandated that public facilities be made equally accessible to those with disabilities, there are still thousands of public places in Colorado Springs and El Paso County that don’t comply and no clear plan to fix most of them.
City and county officials have touted their recent efforts to bring public spaces in line with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act by adding curb ramps, re-striping parking lots to include more accessible spaces and making other adjustments. From 2016 through the end of next year, Colorado Springs’ investment in accessibility is expected to exceed $9 million, according to data provided by the city.
More improvements are in the works, they say.
“Thirty years ought to be enough, you would think,” said Drew Wills, a paraplegic who is on the board of directors for The Independence Center, a Springs-based nonprofit that helps support people with disabilities.
He sees the city and county’s recent efforts as an attempt to appease federal regulators and forestall future legal troubles. It’s an already-late response that’s expected to unfold gradually — “when people who are having barrier problems and access problems need it now,” he said.
“You’re in a difficult position of saying (to the city and county), ‘We appreciate what you’re doing.’ And we do — but come on.”
Barriers, by the numbers
Just last month, the county unveiled a draft of its “transition plan,” a document that all local governments with 50 or more employees were required to complete by early January 1993 under the ADA.
The city is working on an overhaul of a similar plan that was created in the early 90s and hasn’t been updated in years.
The documents and related facility assessments provide a window into the scale of the city and county’s accessibility woes.
Officials have identified more than 3,500 ADA violations that would cost upwards of $4 million to fix, according to data from the city and county. Those barriers range from counters that are too high and restroom stalls that are too narrow to uneven sidewalks and walkways.
That number of violations will undoubtedly grow, as will the price tag on fixing them.
The city hasn’t yet released numbers on the obstacles that people with disabilities face when they travel through the Colorado Springs airport, visit more than 160 local parks or use Mountain Metropolitan Transit to get around.
And the county still has roughly 20 more buildings, trails and open spaces to assess.
Plus, there’s roughly 2,400 miles of sidewalk and 30,000 pedestrian ramps in the city, — and more on the county side — that must be compliant.
So far, the city has assessed about 40% of those ramps, and found that as much as 90% of those surveyed do not meet the ADA’s technical requirements, Colorado Springs Public Works Director Travis Easton said in an email.
Many of the flawed ramps were built decades ago along roads that haven’t been touched since the ADA was passed, Easton said.
The transition plan documents offer only a rough timeline of when improvements might be completed.
The Colorado Springs plan states that most barriers are set to be removed on 1- to 10-year timelines. The county expects that “overall compliance is possible in 20 years.”
But those schedules hinge on funding availability, both plans note.
“This is a plan to get to a transition plan. It’s not the transition plan,” Patricia Yeager, The Independence Center’s CEO, said of the county draft. “They have a lot of work yet to do.”
Allegations lead to change
Colorado Springs faces mounting legal pressure over accessibility issues.
The city agreed in August to a $22,500 payout to Richard Muszynski, who alleged in a lawsuit filed in El Paso County District Court that city sidewalks were blocked and curb ramps were inaccessible. These were obstacles for his child, who has a disability.
The city also agreed to repair sidewalks, install curb ramps and the crackdown on walkway obstructions in the Stetson Hills neighborhood. Under the terms of the settlement, though, Colorado Springs didn’t admit liability for Muszynski’s claims.
The payout comes on the heels of two other ADA-related city settlements within six months of one another.
Lawsuits and legal threats are some of the few ways that advocates for people with disabilities have been successful in getting governments to resolve accessibility problems, experts say.
“The issue with the ADA is it takes a lawsuit to enforce it. There’s no ADA police,” Yeager said.
Colorado Springs must install more than 15,000 curb ramps over the next 14 years under a settlement reached in response to a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver in March.
Last September, a lawsuit similar to Musynski’s case ended in a settlement that was perhaps the most symbolic victory in recent years for Colorado Springs residents with different access needs.
Stetson Hills residents Chris and Nikole Sweeney sued the city, alleging their neighborhood has for years lacked necessary ramps and sidewalks.
Chris Sweeney has been in a wheelchair since being struck twice by lightning, once while on duty in the Air Force.
The city agreed to pay the couple $19,000 and hold quarterly town halls for residents to discuss accessibility issues and concerns around town.
The county has faced far fewer legal troubles stemming from the ADA.
In the past five years, the county settled one claim over accessibility for $13,260. That agreement was reached in November 2016, according to the county.
Behind the curb
Yeager and other advocates say governments nationwide have long ignored the provisions of the ADA, in part because no one was forcing them to abide by the law.
But locally, progress in achieving compliance has lagged behind other cities in the state, she said.
“Both the city and county have come to the table late,” she said. “It’s just a shame that it seems like the ADA didn’t get over Palmer (Divide) until sometimes in the mid-2000-teens.”
The ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities working for organizations and agencies that received federal funding.
President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990.
The city developed a transition plan between 1991 and 1992 and updated the document several times in 1995, a city staffer previously told The Gazette. But for years after that, the plan went untouched.
For more than two decades, neither the city nor county had full-time ADA coordinators. Instead, various aspects of the job were spread among different departments.
By 2015, the Colorado Springs area had fallen well short of the spirit and letter of the ADA, The Gazette reported. Buildings and pathways were inaccessible to the then-estimated 66,000 people with disabilities in the county.
“Colorado Springs is a little behind the times,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, which aims to ensure that people with disabilities can access facilities and meet other basic needs.
“I would think a city of that size should have figured this out by now,” she said.
She noted, for example, that Fort Collins, Pueblo and Denver have commissions or committees that allow citizens to weigh in on ADA issues and government priorities for improvements.
Progress made elsewhere in Colorado has also been fueled by legal concerns.
Denver agreed in 2016 to install at least 1,500 curb ramps annually — until every pedestrian walkway crossing in the city is compliant — under a settlement with the nonprofit Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, the Denver Post reported.
Two years later, Denver pledged to spend millions of dollars more on ADA compliance after the U.S. Justice Department conducted a review and demanded improvements, The Post reported.
Meeting the Challenge, a Colorado Springs-based ADA compliance consultant, is working with 10 other localities in Colorado, said the firm’s director, Dana Barton.
“This is happening all over the state and all over the country,” Barton said. “When it comes to accessibility, if it doesn’t affect you or a loved one, sometimes you don’t think about all the things that go into making activities, services and programs accessible.”
Improvements in the works
Wills, a personal injury attorney who’s handled accessibility cases, said he lost the use of his legs about 15 years ago in a “freak ski accident.”
He often sees hallways and other passages that are too narrow for wheelchairs and parking spots blocking curb ramps.
And when he’s working at the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex’s older south tower, he has to use the restrooms in the newer parts of the courthouse because his wheelchair won’t fit in the aging tower’s bathroom stalls.
“There are buildings like that all over — even city and county buildings,” Wills said.
But local officials have stressed that they’re continuing to make strides in accessibility. New buildings and sidewalks are being constructed with ADA requirements in mind, they say.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” county facilities Executive Director Brian Olsen told county commissioners during an Oct. 24 work session. “That’s not to say we don’t have deficiencies and need to fix those — and we’ll continue to do so.”
The county’s 2019 budget includes about $555,000 worth of ADA improvements that will be fully completed this year or next year, Olsen said. A 2020 staff budget proposal allots another $300,000 to compliance projects.
“Could we do it better? Absolutely. It’s a matter of money,” said Mark Waller, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners. “We have a limited and finite number of dollars.”
Mayor John Suthers’ proposed 2020 budget includes $1.4 million for the city’s ADA program and operating costs. Last year the council unanimously agreed to hire five new ADA inspectors, an administrator and a human resources staffer.
City Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, an accessibility advocate who is legally blind, praised the city’s progress.
“I have seen a notable difference,” Avila said.
“I don’t think it’s easy when we’re covering 200 square miles,” she said. “But we’re making our best effort.”
On Monday, the Transportation Legislative Review Committee heard about the Regional Transportation District’s proposed service cuts, as well as their effect on customers with disabilities.
“Without RTD, our ability to really reap the promises of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which turns 30 next year, is gone,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, as reported by CPR.
“Because we can’t get to work, we can’t get out, we can’t go spend money in the community, we can’t get to medical care. Transportation is really the key to independence and full community participation.”
Due to a shortage of bus and rail operators, RTD is looking at temporarily reducing service as early as 2020 to cut back on mandated overtime for existing employees. The transit system is already forced to drop runs due to short staffing.
RTD’s presentation to the committee referenced “low unemployment impacting [the] labor force nationwide,” and stated that “[f]atigue is affecting quality of life and safety.”
The agency said that their system-wide service availability — the amount of time that routes run as advertised — is 99% for buses, 98% for light rail and 98% for commuter rail. Commuter routes operate under a public-private partnership and are not part of anticipated cutbacks.
Reiskin said that Access-A-Ride, RTD’s door-to-door bus service for disabled customers, has combined trips recently due to the driver shortage. An RTD spokesperson could not confirm whether that was the case.
“There is nothing more important than RTD.”
That’s what Jule Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said just a few moments after she testified before lawmakers Monday about a recent proposal from the Regional Transportation District that would significantly curtail service.
Reiskin, who uses a wheelchair, told members of the Transportation Legislative Review Committee that the spotty service on RTD’s fixed-route buses and light rail trains because of an ongoing operator shortage in recent months is nothing new to riders with disabilities.
“What we’re seeing with fixed-route cancellations, we’ve been seeing for years with Access-A-Ride,” Reiskin said, referring to RTD’s paratransit service.
Access-A-Ride provides door-to-door service for disabled patrons who can’t use RTD’s other services. And RTD has been combining trips recently because of driver shortages, Reiskin said.
“Sometimes people can be on the van for two hours for a trip that could take 45 minutes,” she said.
Earlier this month, RTD staff proposed temporary service cuts as a last-ditch way to give its overworked drivers a break. The agency is short about 160 drivers and has been forcing many of them to work six days a week for years to keep up with current service levels. That proposal is still in its early stages. The RTD board will hear a more fleshed out version of it in December.
Reiskin told lawmakers Monday that RTD should commit to not cutting Access-A-Ride at all, and should do its very best to not reduce any service.
“We think it’s a really bad idea,” Reiskin told CPR News. “We think that they need to work with the union on other ways to be retaining drivers.”
Any sort of cut could have a ripple effect on riders with disabilities, Reiskin said, because many people who can’t drive for medical reasons rely on RTD’s buses and trains. And Access-A-Ride is only available to patrons who live within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed-route service line, so cuts to those could curtail the reach of the paratransit service.
“Without RTD, our ability to really reap the promises of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which turns 30 next year, is gone,” Resikin said. “Because we can’t get to work, we can’t get out, we can’t go spend money in the community, we can’t get to medical care. Transportation is really the key to independence and full community participation.”
RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said she couldn’t say whether driver shortages have affected Access-A-Ride, but she said the agency is very aware of the importance of that service.
“These are folks who are some of our most transit-dependent. We obviously are very careful about what we do to impact them,” she said. “However, day to day, it’s tough to predict what’s going to happen with any of our services.”
Tonilas said Reiskin and others are welcome to give RTD their thoughts in coming weeks as the proposal takes shape.
“This is an unfortunate situation that we don’t want to be in,” Tonilas said. “But we have a responsibility to look at what we can do to try to solve the situation.”
RTD officials mentioned the proposal in its own presentation to the Transportation Legislation Review Committee on Monday, which drew some critical questions from lawmakers.
“It sounds to me, though, that the temporary designation is based on hope,” Democratic Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield said.
RTD General Manager Dave Genova said RTD has some new ideas, including hiring temporary employees. Board Chair Doug Tisdale replied that the board has committed to a firm end date to the service reduction.
“We will give this a stated amount of time, and look to staff to deliver those results,” Tisdale said.
Read the original article by clicking here.
Pueblo advocates among flyers who’ve experienced losing mobility far from home
After a United Airlines flight three years ago, Isabelle Briar ripped open her thumb as she pushed her wheelchair away from the gate. The airline had cracked the metal grip ring, leaving a sharp, protruding shard.
The same airline ignored Cindy Otis’ complaints about damage to her power chair in 2006, responding weeks later and only after she had an attorney write a letter threatening to sue.
In 2017, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, boarded a flight hours after writing federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Duckworth wanted to know why the agency again delayed requiring airlines to track damage to wheelchairs and scooters.
Upon landing, the Army veteran and amputee noticed her wheelchair no longer moved.
“They bent the metal bracket with the casters,” Duckworth said. “We’re talking about heavy-duty metal. I wonder, how are you managing to break these chairs?”
Last year, Duckworth slipped a provision into the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. It requires major commercial airlines to track mishandled mobility aids for the first time. Each month, airlines must tell the DOT how often they gate-check wheelchairs and scooters, as well as how often passengers report those devices as damaged, lost, delayed or stolen.
That requirement took effect in December, but some airlines reported challenges providing accurate figures that month.
However, between January and August— the latest month for which data is available — U.S. carriers reported having mishandled at least 6,915 chairs. That’s an average of 29 times a day.
While it’s just 1.6% of the chairs and scooters checked on flights, more than a dozen travelers told GateHouse Media that damage to their mobility aids can have significant medical, emotional and financial consequences. Some avoid flying altogether, saying the risks are too great.
“They are essential mobility equipment. It’s important stuff,” said Ben Mattlin, a Los Angeles writer and power chair user. “God, if that many pets were injured every day, it’d be an uproar.”
Duckworth said the general public fails to grasp the severity of the situation when a wheelchair is damaged or lost.
“Imagine if in a single year (that many) people had their legs broken by an airline as a result of flying,” Duckworth said. “The effect is the same.”
United Airlines did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Not an object
Travelers said people often see their chairs as objects rather than critical, customized extensions of their bodies that enable independence.
“We literally cannot function without them,” said Briar, a video game streamcaster from Nebraska.
Because wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all, they can take weeks to repair and sometimes cost thousands of dollars to replace a single part. Daily users require devices that routinely cost as much as a car, and the most specialized power chairs might cost as much as a small house.
If the damage from a flight isn’t immediately devastating, or if airlines refuse to pay for repairs, some people said they have lived with broken mobility aids.
Duct tape holds together a key metal beam of Briar’s wheelchair.
“Because of the nature of the way the chair fits, I didn’t realize my seat was missing half of its support until I transferred back into it in the (airport) bathroom,” she said.
United Airlines nearly lost the metal rod in a plane’s cargo hold, she said, and refused to pay for repairs. Staff members used duct tape to hold the support rod in place instead, she said.
Noting the prohibitive cost to repair it and the days she’d be without her aid, Briar said, “I’m still using it in that condition.”
Tips for Pueblo travelers
Though she has not heard of cases specific to Pueblo, Kristen Castor, nonattorney advocate for the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said airline damage is a reality for many wheelchair owners.
“If they don’t have a wheelchair, they don’t have mobility — and they have been tossed out of the airport without their wheelchairs,” she said. “I’ve got a story from New York: One of the activist friends I work with, her chair was destroyed by the airline. She finally has gotten a chair from them, but it takes a long time to fight that.”
Wheelchair pieces including armrests, footrests as well as the electronic controls on powered wheelchairs are especially vulnerable to damage, Castor said. She also recommends that wheelchair owners dismantle the chairs themselves before boarding a plane.
Julie Reiskin, executive director for the coalition, boards a flight once a month on average and said she has experienced damage to her wheelchair after flying on two occasions.
“In both cases the airlines did take responsibility to pay for the repairs; however, in both cases my chair was still functional, so I was not in a situation of being in a strange city with no workable chair,” Reiskin said. “That is my worst nightmare.”
“Some people can walk a bit or can use other chairs, but many of us who are considered ‘full-time’ wheelchair users have customized seating; so we cannot sit in any chair that is not ours — at least not without risking injury or at least serious pain,” she said.
To avoid damage, Reiskin said she takes severe precautions when traveling with an airline. Before flying, she brings laminated instructions on chair maintenance with her, removes the headrests and footrests, informs airline employees and arrives at the gate two hours early.
“Most of us who travel a lot probably are living closer to the city, but there may be folks in Pueblo that are active travelers,” she said. “I think it is much worse for those who are not active travelers, because they do not have all of the tips and tricks about how to travel with a motorized wheelchair.”
The real number of mishandled wheelchairs is likely much higher than 29 per day, said advocates for people with disabilities.
That’s because many passengers don’t formally report damages to the airlines. Other times, the damage might not immediately be apparent.
Eric Howk, a guitarist for popular rock group “Portugal. The Man” flies more than 100 times a year.
Even though his manual wheelchair is often damaged and delayed while flying, Howk said he never has filed a federal complaint or requested a Complaint Resolution Officer — staff members trained to resolve disability-related issues. He notes he is lucky to have the physical ability and financial means to fix most damage himself.
That said, he currently sits in a replacement chair provided by Alaska Airlines.
“I watched a ground crew member snap the back off the chair,” he said.
Alaska Airlines, which reports damaging fewer than 1% of mobility aids, said in an email that it’s “always committed to improving where we can – especially in this area.”
In the first seven months of this year, American Airlines had the worst record, mishandling 1,846 devices — or 3.7% of all the mobility aids it gate checked.
“We are working hard to build tools and training so that every wheelchair is returned to the passenger in great condition,” an American Airlines spokesperson wrote in an email. “This data and other information are being used to develop a comprehensive plan for improving the customer experience for the long term.”
Several airlines — Allegiant, Hawaiin, JetBlue, Spirit and United — did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on the new federal regulations.
Hope for change
Duckworth hopes the new requirement will help federal regulators better monitor the issue and identify ways for airlines to improve, as well as empower travelers to make informed buying decisions.
“Ultimately,” she said, “it’s about treating medical devices with respect.”
A USDOT spokesperson said by email that the agency publishes the data in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report but did not mention any other plans for the new information.
Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, announced in a blog post Tuesday that he would strengthen enforcement of the Air Carrier Access Act, among other policies, if elected.
Chair users have their own common-sense solutions they say airlines should adopt, such as adding a special section in cargo holds to safely secure mobility aids away from other luggage. Others said airlines should store folding manual chairs in the cabin rather than the cargo hold — something already required, but rarely followed, under federal rules.
The most popular solution: Let passengers keep their chairs and sit in them during flights.
“They don’t demand anyone else to put their legs in cargo, but they do when your legs are wheels,” said Jennifer Brooks, a power chair user from Syracuse, New York.
Some wheelchair users said they are exhausted and skeptical about the likelihood of change.
“There have to be consequences,” said the East Coast cybersecurity expert. “They’ve had anecdotal data for years at this point. … We know what the data says already. We know what’s happening. There needs to be some enforcement.”
This story is the first in an ongoing series. Fill out this short form to share your story of flying with a mobility aid or to tell the reporter what questions you would like answered in future stories: http://bit.ly/ChairTraveler. Jessica Fraser can be reached at email@example.com or 941-361-4923.
Original Article, click to read
As of November 26, 2018, until February 1, 2019, the CCDC Civil Rights Legal Program will not be taking any new cases or intakes. We do not receive funding to provide referrals. Therefore, if you have a legal problem that you think we can assist with, you will need to contact another attorney until January 1, 2018. We apologize for the inconvenience. We will not be returning calls or other intake emails, including social media or by any other method.
If you haven’t voted yet, and you know who you are, you better do so and do it FAST!
During each election, I get asked “Kevin, which of these judges should I vote to retain?” The truth is these questions don’t really affect what CCDC Civil Rights lawyers do. Here’s why: the judges on your ballot are not Federal judges. We practice in Federal Court. State and other judges are appointed by the governor for certain periods of time. What you see on your ballot is the question of whether that judge should be retained.
The ADA, Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and most other disability rights acts that we enforce are federal laws. All Federal judges (District Court, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court) are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. I have explained this process in several blogs before. For example, see Judges! Hoo! What are They Good For? Absolutely Something. I have also explained why it is so important when you are voting for the President and for your senators to consider your civil rights. There are no U.S. senators to vote for on this ballot; you probably do have U.S. Representatives on your ballot. You definitely want to support those candidates who support disability rights. I simply want to make the point that U.S. Representatives are not involved in the confirmation process of federal judges, only U.S. Senators.
Some ways to find information regarding State Court judges are: (1) review the Blue Book that should have been mailed to you or log on to the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation – this is a good starting point; (2) get on the internet – there is a lot of useful information put out by organizations that may have a viewpoint regarding whether or not State Court judges should be retained; (3) if you are aware of lawyers who do practice in State Courts, contact them and get their advice. There are many ways to research how a judge has ruled on cases. This information is easily accessible on the internet and other sources.
It is possible to bring a disability civil rights case in State Court under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. If so, it might be important to find out how the judges on your ballot have ruled on such cases in the past. Try searching on the name of the judge and “disability” and “civil rights.” However, there are very few published disability rights cases that have been decided by State Court judges. I should also make clear that you can file a disability rights lawsuit in federal court under the ADA or other federal laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities, but the defendant can remove the case to federal court. They usually do that. It is a tactical advantage because it slows the case down. That is why it doesn’t really make sense to file a federal court lawsuit in state court.
Remember, you can always just leave the box blank if you do not have an opinion on the judge to be retained. Your ballot will still count. And there are many important issues and candidates on your ballot you should vote for. See the CCDC 2018 Ballot Guide.
-Kevin Williams, CCDC Civil Rights Legal Program Director