On October 31st, beloved disability rights advocate Engracia Figueroa, 51, died following a hospitalization that her attorneys told the Hand in Hand organization was the result of “complications from injuries she sustained when United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair last July.”

Photo courtesy Hand in Hand organization.

After representing Hand in Hand at a July 2021 Care Can’t Wait Rally and Communities of Care art installation in Washington, D.C., Figueroa traveled home to Los Angeles with United Airlines. During the course of that flight, Hand in Hand says that “United Airlines destroyed Engracia’s wheelchair, which was custom-designed to support her spinal cord injury and left leg amputation.”

Upon learning of the damage, Engracia Figueroa was forced to wait in the airport for nearly five hours — seated during that time in a manual airport wheelchair. Without the benefit of the pressure-relieving features of her own wheelchair, she developed a pressure sore.

Engracia Figueroa sitting in an airport wheelchair next to her damaged power wheelchair.
Photo courtesy Engracia Figueroa/ABC News.

According to Hand in Hand, United Airlines fought to deny Figueroa a replacement wheelchair for months, during which time she was forced to use a substandard loaner wheelchair “that was not properly fitted to Engracia’s body.” The loaner wheelchair caused the pressure sore to worsen, leading to subsequent medical issues and ultimately to two additional hospitalizations. The sore became infected and required emergency surgery to remove an infected bone and tissue. Figueroa passed away on Sunday, October 31, 2021.

The organization wrote, “All of us at Hand in Hand are heartbroken, shocked and enraged by Engracia’s needless death. This loss should never have happened. While we are reeling from the layers of injustice this tragedy makes visible, we are holding Engracia’s tenacity and resolve as our guidepost.”

Engracia Figueroa’s death followed an airline’s negligent handling of her wheelchair. The potential for a mobility device to be returned inoperable is the greatest fear that many wheelchair users have when contemplating air travel.

Like Engracia and many other disabled people, I rely on a complex rehab power wheelchair for mobility and depend on its tilt and recline features to relieve pressure as a safeguard against pressure ulcers. Following my car accident, I developed such an ulcer and it took multiple surgeries and more than a year to heal. Due to the risk of infection, pressure sores are life-threatening and I am constantly in fear of reopening that old wound.

Engracia Figueroa’s death was avoidable, because all damage done to wheelchairs by airlines is preventable. With the proper investment in the training of baggage handlers — and the purchase of necessary equipment to safely load and store mobility devices in the cargo hold — wheelchair damage can be eliminated. Figueroa’s death should be a wake-up call, and it is an opportunity for airlines to do what the National Academy of Sciences now says is possible: securing wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin. Storage in the cargo hold is unnecessary and can be a thing of the past.

Close-up image of black woman with hands clutching face.
Photo Shayan Asgharnia, © 2021

While United will rightly bear the responsibility and shame for Engracia Figueroa’s needless death, it could have happened to any of us and on any airline. Data from the USDOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report reveals that U.S. airlines mishandled 834 wheelchairs in the month of July 2021, one of which was Figueroa’s. For each damaged wheelchair, there is a disabled person whose independence, mobility, health and safety are restricted — and whose life very well may be in jeopardy.

It’s time for action.

Rest in power, Engracia Figueroa.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to meet Engracia Figueroa multiple times in California. Once, I participated alongside her in a focus group to discuss safety and accessibility in air travel. She was a delightful person, a shining star, a fearless advocate — and I offer my condolences to the family, friends and community that she so dearly loved.

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