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Disability rights activists mourning the loss of a friend and colleague want the airline industry to ensure mobility equipment, like wheelchairs, are appropriately cared for during travel. Engracia Figueroa passed away last week after several months of battling with United Airlines to replace her wheelchair.  

Figueroa’s wheelchair was damaged while traveling over the summer, and the replacement wheelchair provided did not properly support her needs. For people without mobility challenges, this might not seem like a big deal. Still, for Figueroa, who had particular physical support and mobility requirements, it was literally a matter of life and death.  

An ABC News article from July described how Figueroa’s $30,000 wheelchair was severely damaged in the cargo hold of a United Airlines flight. At the time, Figueroa said it took two months to replace the wheelchair. For Figueroa, the device allowed greater independence that was not provided by the loaner chair.  

The organization Hand in Hand explained Figueroa’s ordeal in a detailed blog post. Hand in Hand also launched a petition demanding United airlines end damage to wheelchairs and assistive devices.  

Read more from Hand in Hand below about the demand and what happened due to United’s carelessness. 

While Engracia did not ask for this fight against United, she felt she had a duty to bring awareness to this pervasive issue in the airline industry. On average, airlines damage or destroy 29 wheelchairs per day. As Engracia’s story shows, the consequences of this ableism and mistreatment are devastating.   

Engracia said in multiple interviews, “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.”  

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.  Engracia passed away in the morning on Sunday, October 31st, 2021.   

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