Disability Activist Died After Airline Damaged Custom Wheelchair, Advocacy Group Claims
Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Disability activist Engracia Figueroa passed away October 31, reportedly from complications after United Airlines damaged her custom wheelchair on a plane ride.

Hand in Hand, a network of domestic employers of which Figueroa was a member, stated that the wheelchair “was custom-designed to support her spinal cord injury and left leg amputation [and] critical to her independence, as well as essential to maintaining her health.”

After United reportedly demolished her wheelchair, they didn’t replace it. Instead, they “insisted that they would only pay to have it repaired.  But a motorized wheelchair that has undergone that much damage poses a severe risk of fire, and is unsafe.  Furthermore, the loaner chair United provided further exacerbated her injuries,” Hand in Hand noted in a statement on November 3.

The statement continues:

Ultimately, United Airlines agreed to fully replace Engracia’s chair valued at $30,000. However, the months in which they fought against the replacement took a toll on her body. 

While fighting with United to replace her chair, Engracia was forced to use a loaner chair that was not properly fitted to Engracia’s body.  This further exacerbated her pressure sore, and caused muscle spasms, severe edema, and an inability to eat, as well as two additional hospitalizations.  The sore became infected and the infection eventually reached her hip bone, requiring emergency surgery to remove the infected bone and tissue.  

Figueroa then passed away Sunday morning on October 31.

Hand in Hand has created a petition to end discrimination against people with assistive devices, noting that airlines damage or destroy 29 wheelchairs a day.

As Figueroa stated before her death, “Mobility devices are an extension of our bodies. When they are damaged or destroyed, we become re-disabled. Until the airlines learn how to treat our devices with the care and respect they deserve, flying remains inaccessible.” 

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