Christopher Smit and Jill Vyn | November 2020

Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines recently told CNN Business, “Even though the negative impact of Covid-19 will persist in the near term, we are now focused on positioning the airline for a strong recovery that will allow United to […] emerge as the global leader in aviation.” This statement came after United reported a $2.4 billion loss in the third quarter of 2020, a deficit mirrored by other airlines due to the pandemic.

“Change is in the air, so why not push for real reform in the way disabled travelers experience the “friendly” skies?”

Plexiglas dividers, advanced air filtration systems, and mandatory mask protocols are among the myriad of new ways airlines are attempting to help reestablish their services as reliable, predictable, and safe. As they implement this work, it would be perhaps an ideal time to also reimagine the experience of flying for disabled passengers. Change is in the air, so why not initiate real reform in the way disabled travelers experience the “friendly” skies? For too many folks with disabilities, flying represents struggle, discomfort, and the constant, dehumanizing humiliation of systems that demand conformity to ableist ideals. 

Ask any disabled traveler who uses a power wheelchair and they are more likely than not to tell you a horror story that usually ends with hurt feelings, broken equipment, and insufficient understanding on the part of the airlines. Many of us must take on the role of educator when flying, having to point out to every employee we interact with that we know best when it comes to our bodies and equipment. It’s gotten so bad that experienced disabled travellers duct tape signs all over our chairs that say, “THIS IS MY ONLY MODE OF TRANSPORTATION. PLEASE HANDLE WITH CARE.”  It may in fact be more appropriate to tape that sign to our foreheads. We would do anything to have an airline employee view wheelchairs not as luggage, but as extensions of bodies. Perhaps then, they might take more care not to lose or damage them.

For disabled people, demeaning treatment isn’t surprising. We live in a culture where the presence of disabled bodies and minds are themselves a disruption to the status quo, where systems and our built environment is designed for nondisabled people, and where phrases like “wheelchair-bound” are commonplace. It is not uncommon for disabled travelers to be treated as problematic. For example, during a trip last year we overheard a United Airlines employee tell her colleague on the phone upon seeing us, “We’ve got a problem. I’ve got a wheelchair here.” It was immediately clear that wheelchair users are reduced to inconvenient objects rather than self-actualized, autonomous individuals.

This type of service-negligence pushes against the fact that in 2019, and subsequently in 2020, United Airlines was rated one of the best businesses to work for as a disabled person by the Disability Equity Index. Administered by Disability:IN, which describes itself as “the leading nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide,” this index helps companies remain committed to their Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) goals surrounding disability. The disconnect between this sort of congratulatory proclamation and the in-person experience of United Airlines disability services is jarring.

Unfortunately, this scenario is all-too-familiar, especially for disabled people. We are constantly being underserved by companies who have been awarded for serving us “with excellence.” Driven by accessibility checklists that have little or no direct connection to the experiences of disabled people, companies and organizations across the country are continually heralding themselves as “inclusive.” United Airlines’ mission statement is to “create an inclusive work environment, characterized by dignity and respect, that empowers every employee to serve the global marketplace and contribute to our success.” The company goes on to say that this mission is served through the creation of inclusive work environments, the offering of distinguished services, and the  vaguely described effort to “improve lives.” This is great lip service, but unfortunately has no palpable effect on the experience of its disabled customers.

True accessibility is always felt before it is understood.

The exclusion and humiliation afforded by United Airlines smacks of the reality that contemporary life for disabled people remains filled with ridiculous inconsistencies and painful dichotomies. While the disability cultural movement which elevates the voice and visibility of disabled people gains momentum in our country, archaic and dehumanizing systems work to strip the rights from those whose identities do not conform. 

Airports operate thanks to a wide range of intentionally designed systems where disabled bodies are misfits. The systems are meant to produce convenient travel for people who can conform to ableist norms, don’t challenge assumptions, who can walk, climb stairs, carry bags and sprint if needed to make that close connection. Ticket counters, boarding pass kiosks, security, baggage handling, and air traffic control all sing and dance to the convincing melody of efficiency and security. This system, which treats bodies like packages on a conveyor belt, is disrupted by the presence of disabled minds and bodies.

“True accessibility is always felt before it is understood.”

Rather than treating disabled travelers as problems to be solved, employees from United and other airlines should be treating disabled customers with dignity and their power wheelchairs with respect. What if instead of airline employees awkwardly and unsteadily lifting and jostling disabled travelers from their power wheelchairs to the uncomfortable aisle chair, that this transfer was done behind a partition for privacy and with a hoyer lift for familiarity and security? How different would the experience be for disabled travelers if they did not have to worry whether or not their chair would arrive in one piece or if at all. How many work trips, vacations, or family gatherings could be kept intact if  disabled travelers’ wheelchairs weren’t lost or damaged in transit?

Disabled people find themselves in these situations far too regularly. We are forced to educate (with good humor) those whose services we have paid for; we are stripped of our identity and dignity by systems that favor the nondisabled; we are made vulnerable and embarrassed by processes designed without our voice. And at the end of it all, what’s left? A person forcibly made silent and submissive, the happy cripple whose only role in the situation is to be grateful for the help.

“Until the voices of disabled people are integrated into the systems that guide our lives, we, like our wheelchairs, will simply be misplaced or lost.”

Unfortunately, it is becoming all too obvious that although the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made it possible for disabled individuals to access all public spaces, it does not adequately address the attitudinal barriers disabled people often feel while in public. Nor does it sufficiently consider the different sensory, social, cognitive, developmental, or mental health disabilities that many people live with on a daily basis.

Disabled people deserve to do more than be accommodated or “dealt with” by the proprietors of contemporary life. We deserve to go anywhere in this world and we deserve to be accounted for. United Airlines should proactively create systems that guarantee reliable and pleasurable flying experiences for all disabled people whether their disability is apparent or not. 

Airline vouchers are offered as “goodwill gestures” for the humiliation, discomfort, and vulnerability caused by lost or damaged wheelchairs. As a culture, we both pass out and accept these charitable gestures that take the place of sustainable cultural change. 

Real change will come when the voices of disabled people are integrated into the systems that guide our lives. Until that point, we, like our wheelchairs, will simply be misplaced or lost.

About the Authors:

Christopher Smit, PhD and Jill Vyn, MSW founded DisArt in 2015, an arts and culture organization that believes that expressions of a Disabled cultural identity can transform society from awareness to understanding to belonging, creating a society that enjoys the full and equitable participation of all people. Through groundbreaking exhibitions, impactful programming, and organizational coaching, Smit and Vyn have become influential voices in a global conversation about how to use art to amplify the voice, visibility, and value of all Disabled people.