“I’m being held prisoner at the Orlando Airport tonight.”

That’s a text message I sent to my sister in 2017 — After arriving late at night on a flight to the Orlando International Airport (MCO), I was unable to secure a wheelchair taxi.

Taxi stand at Orlando Airport as pictured in 2017.

Despite there being a long line of cabs at the taxi stand, none had a wheelchair ramp. In more progressive cities and states, Uber and Lyft provide wheelchair accessible vehicles, but the Florida Legislature has outlawed cities in the Sunshine State from imposing any regulations that would guarantee equal access to disabled people. With public transportation shut down for the night, I was stuck at the airport despite my sister’s home being only a few miles away.

I could roll there using my power wheelchair, I thought — probably in 45 minutes or less — but alas, there were no sidewalks. No sidewalks from the terminal building to the public roads? Though it may seem hard to believe, a large number of airports in the United States — particularly those as large as MCO — offer no pedestrian access to the airport. Or, more accurately, they provide no pedestrian access to disabled people, since nondisabled people can walk on the grass and step over curbs without any issue.

The only way out of the Orlando Airport that night, for me, was on the multi-lane airport access roadway itself — to leave, I would have had to drive my wheelchair in the road, completely unprotected. It was a risk I was not willing to take.

My only option was to book a room at the Hyatt Regency hotel located inside the airport terminal and, at a cost of hundreds of dollars for just a few hours of rest, I couldn’t even get a room with an ADA compliant shower. That’s an issue for another time.

I’ve found myself in a similar situation at other airports too — Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport are just a few examples that come to mind, airports where I have been trapped and had to spend the night (at CLE and STL, I had to sleep on a bench). Though these experiences wouldn’t meet the standard for a criminal conviction on the charge of false imprisonment, it sure felt like it — my freedom to exit the airport had been restricted as a result of inaccessibility.

Airports that fail to provide sidewalk access to the outside world behave unacceptably; every airport should be required to provide a wheelchair accessible pedestrian walkway to each airport entrance/exit that motorists have access to.

Some cities have met this standard — the first time I wheeled to and from an airport was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where wheelchair taxis seemingly do not exist and airport hotels do not have wheelchair accessible shuttles. In order to reach the Hyatt Place hotel I had booked near the Albuquerque International Sunport, I had to roll there myself on what was a journey of about 1.5 miles.

In another case, I wheeled from the Las Vegas Strip to the Las Vegas Airport — not because I needed to, but because I wanted to check it out for an article like this. The sidewalks provided throughout the airport campus were wide, smooth and well-manicured… I enjoyed the desert landscape!

An airport cannot be considered truly accessible if it does not meet the following three conditions regarding the availability of accessible transportation:

  1. Wheelchair accessible sidewalks connect the airport terminal to public roadways.
  2. Taxis, ride share services, hotel shuttles and rental car shuttles provide wheelchair access, with equivalent wait time to standard (inaccessible) services.
  3. Public transportation services operate from the earliest flight departure to the latest arrival, allowing passengers to reach the airport via public transit at all hours.

Disabled travelers have a right to be free from false imprisonment at the airport, full stop. With the vast majority of U.S. airports owned by local governments, individual airport authorities have a responsibility to ensure pedestrian access, as well as equal access to all modes of transportation made available to passengers. Airports can and should be partners in ADA enforcement, with most already having the power to do so through the licensure of ground transportation providers.

Is your local airport accessible via sidewalk to wheelchair users and other pedestrians? Have you ever been stuck at the airport overnight? Let me know in the comments below!

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