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Air Acrobatics: Accessibility Not Good for Airplane Passengers with Mobility Limitations

By Aura Hernández, Oklahoma City, OK

The lack of accessibility of public and private buildings is a problem that could potentially affect any citizen. Nobody is exempt from the possibility of experiencing an illness or accident that would impair their mobility. This said, I believe it should be the responsibility of vigilant societies to ensure public spaces are accessible to all citizens.

The inaccessibility of public and private places is a problem that has not yet been solved by governments, engineers and other professionals. The creation and implementation of laws about the issue is a relatively new phenomenon. The International Congress for the Suppression of Architectural Barriers (1963) that took place in Switzerland was the first formal act to call attention to the issue. Following that event there has been increasing action around finding ways to integrate the millions of people around the world who have mobility impairments that prevent them from accessing some part of society.

Other events that were organized to increase governments' and institutions' awareness of the issues around accessibility include:

  • Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons
    United Nations, 1975
  • World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons
    United Nations, 1982
  • Resolution on Equality of Opportunity for People with Disabilities
    United Nations, 1993

These landmark events have, to an extent, served as a point of reference for governments' decision-making and the awareness of individuals around the world about issues relating to physical barriers and accessibility.

Long Way to Go

Nevertheless, on a recent trip to China I observed and experienced the lack of accessibility to buildings and public and private transportation for people like me who don't move as quickly as others. The inaccessibility I experienced in China did not surprise me. I am aware some cities and countries are more accessible than others. A bright spot, however, was that travel agencies in China had good information about which facilities were accessible and which were not.

Making Flying Friendly for All

The lack of accessibility on airplanes, however, did surprise me. Despite the airlines' extensive promotion and propaganda offering all kinds of spoils to make passengers' experiences more comfortable and enjoyable, my experience with two US-based airliners was less than comfortable and enjoyable.

Staff of the airline I patronized said their company provided special services for people with disabilities including assistance boarding, reserved seating, etc. Since I have mobility impairments I was promised a first row seat to allow me a little more room to move my legs.

My itinerary included changing planes three times. I was only able to have a first row seat during one leg of the long trip. It was impossible to file a complaint with the manager in between segments of the trip because I ran the risk of missing my connection if I spent time communicating my seating request. Needless to say I was disappointed with the accommodations they provided for me on that occasion. They tried (or claimed they tried) but didn't get it together.

Hard to Handle

The dimensions of the seats in airplanes are very small and uncomfortable for most, and even more so for people with mobility impairments, poor circulation or who are overweight. The stairs to get on and off the plane are very steep. Airplane bathrooms are so small that they are difficult to use for a person who moves easily, let alone for people with mobility impairments. And, often bathrooms that are designated for people with disabilities are not much more accessible than the others.

The US Department of Transportation outlined regulations designed to make sure people with disabilities have the same opportunities as other passengers to enjoy the flight. In reality it seems these rules are not enforced. They seem to have few actual effects on passengers with disabilities. It would be nice, for example, if they captioned the movies so Deaf and Hard of Hearing people could enjoy them too.

I hope that airline engineers and designers, executives and the US Department of Transportation staff work together to restructure the design of airplanes and airline services to make them universally accessible. It would be noble of the airline executives to call attention to the issue. Until that happens, consumers can visit the US Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division for assistance.

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