A motorized wheelchair flies through space over the earth. The chair has a jet engine and wings.

Fighting Discrimination

During normal times, I love to travel. I have been to many places in the US and some lovely places internationally.

So I was extremely upset when I saw the news from NPR in early November that American Airlines had started a new policy in June of refusing to carry motorized wheelchairs weighing more than 300 pounds on regional jets.

Regional jets are the lifeblood of US travel

This hit me hard and felt very personal. I’d been flying with my motorized chair from my small hometown in upstate New York using regional jets for more than 20 years. In fact, regional jets are the lifeblood of travel in the US because they serve and connect small airports to larger ones. Until recent years (before we switched to driving), I’d used regional jets to fly home to visit family a few times a year.

Add business and other personal trips, and this discriminatory policy change could greatly reduce my travel options — restricting my ability to fly to many destinations in the U.S.

Plane accessibility is protected by law

While I have a simpler motorized wheelchair that doesn’t weigh more than 300 pounds, it is very common for these chairs to be used by people with a variety of disabilities. These devices are also not new to airlines.

The Air Carrier Access Act

For decades, airlines operating in the US have been required to accommodate motorized wheelchairs (and other mobility devices) and provide equal access to people with disabilities under the Air Carrier Access Act. Airlines have the tools and knowledge to load wheelchairs and deliver them to passengers. As I said before, I’ve been flying with my motorized wheelchair on regional jets (with American Airlines, no less!) for at least 20 years, as the law has asserted my access.

Although I’m not a lawyer, a basic understanding of American Airlines’ policy change looked glaringly discriminatory under the law. And even though I would still be able to fly because my wheelchair is lighter, I could not stand by and watch this policy happen. I also worried: when would they come for me and stop me from traveling with my wheelchair?

Advocacy in action

My first action was to write to American Airlines to request an explanation. How was it legal to make this policy change? How was this not a discriminatory action against people with disabilities needing mobility devices? How were they informing ticketed passengers with disabilities and working to help them travel successfully?

Next, I asked for help. I published on social media explaining the situation and asking my friends to write American Airlines with sample language they could tailor and use. I also contacted the National Disability Rights Network because one of their legal experts was quoted in the NPR article. I asked if they knew anything more and if they knew what organizations were advocating on the issue.

Then, I contacted the NPR reporter, Joe Shapiro, to share my concern and anger about the discriminatory policy and how it would impact me as a wheelchair user who travels.

Strength in passion and numbers

I was delighted and encouraged by the avalanche of responses. Friends came out of the woodwork to write letters, share on social media, and follow up with American Airlines to press the issue. I also emailed the airline two more times, beginning a follow up campaign every week until the problem was solved. And I learned that advocacy groups were working behind the scenes to press American Airlines to reverse the discriminatory policy.

It was an anxious few weeks, but I was thrilled when American Airlines emailed me (and others) on November 23 that they had reassessed and decided to change the wheelchair weight limit policy. I immediately reached out to everyone who had helped make the magic happen! Joe Shapiro published a story with NPR that day announcing the reversal.

Good lessons from fighting discrimination

I learned so much from this experience. First (very unfortunately), discrimination still happens every day. Reversals in equality happen every day. When we see them, we have to stand up and make it known that it will not be tolerated. At the very least, we must say, "I see this happening and I do not like it."

Second, there is power in the people. If we ask for help, it will come. If we ask for support and give support to making things just a little better, we all benefit. Change happens when people who care get together and take even the simplest of actions.

I have been reminded that we can still make a difference. We don’t have to live with discrimination and artificial limits or restrictions. Together, we can make the world a better place even when times are challenging.

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