Dear airlines: Ableism is cruel and not a good look
Updated: Oct 25
Here is a harsh and uncomfortable reality many are fortunate not to be aware of: air travel is often a humiliating nightmare for people with disabilities. A month ago, a paraplegic woman named Jennie Berry was forced to physically drag herself up an airplane aisle to use the toilet after the flight attendants refused assistance. In a disturbing video she shared on Twitter, Berry can be seen using her arms to drag her paralyzed legs down the narrow aisle floor on an AlbaStar flight to Mallorca. In the background, confused passengers stare at an occurrence that does not belong in the year 2022 or any year for that matter.
“AlbaStar would like to express our sincere apologies for the event that recently took place on one of our flights,” states the company’s Instagram apology. “Our main concern is the safety and comfort of all our passengers on each and every flight we operate. We are working to investigate the incident to ensure that this isolated incident does not happen again on any of our aircrafts.”
In Berry’s original tweet, which has now gone viral with thousands of comments bashing AlbaStar, she confirms that flight attendants not only refused to provide an ‘aisle chair’ (a type of wheelchair for airplanes), but they also declined to help her get to the toilet, ignored her when she painfully did so on her own, and even rudely proclaimed that disabled people should wear diapers when flying to avoid disturbing the flight.
Often seen as just an afterthought, individuals with disabilities find themselves stuck in society’s patterns and tendencies of avoidance. Avoiding discussing disability in a sensitive manner, avoiding putting an end to how embedded ableism is in our language, biases, and perceptions of disability, and avoiding making necessary changes to better the lives of people with disabilities. And when companies like AlbaStar issue generic and overly corporate “apologies” to disabled people they have severely wronged, the harmful patterns continue.
In 2015, a man with cerebral palsy had to crawl out of a United Airlines flight to access his wheelchair after staff forgot to bring it to him. Over 36,930 disability-related complaints were made to airlines in 2018 alone. In 2019, airlines were reported to have lost or broken 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters—more than 29 every day. A 51-year-old woman died from body sores after United Airlines damaged her $30,000 custom-made wheelchair in 2021.
Issues like these throughout the years highlight the need for our laws to change drastically. While trains and buses must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act which forces them to create accessible wheelchair spots and restrooms—planes have been exempt from complying since 1986 because they follow the Air Carrier Access Act, which only prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals, and does not require meeting accessibility standards or protecting their belongings.
Not only are people with disabilities potential customers who feel pressure to stay away from flying due to fear of becoming another headline—but they are also, first and foremost, people who deserve kind and equal treatment with their needs fully met. It's ridiculous that airlines can safely transport dogs and surfboards but are incapable of not breaking wheelchairs (durable by design), and not developing clear protocols to keep disabled passengers safe and comfortable during flights.
Changes to the industry will make monumental differences for those living with a disability. Airplanes must meet accessibility standards, make modifications to accommodate disabled passengers, and properly train their staff on how to assist those in need. We must raise the standards for accessibility and air travel to be safer and more inclusive.
By Katarina Josifov
Katarina is an SDSU senior & public relations student originally from Belgrade, Serbia. She is passionate about combining interdisciplinary arts with PR and aspires to specialize in international tourism post-graduation