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Advocating for Airline Accessibility: Interview with Vicki Jurney-Taylor

The Disability Visibility Project recently came across the work of Vicki Jurney-Taylor, writer, disability advocate and accessibility consultant. She is spearheading an online campaign requesting Congress to require the airline industry to provide spaces on commercial flights for passengers who must remain seated in their wheelchairs for health and safety reasons.

Below is an interview with Vicky.

What motivated you to start this petition?

This project is very near and dear to my heart since I cannot sit in a standard airline passenger seat due to my disability. Many individuals, like me, lack the strength to support their necks or torsos, or it is very painful for them to sit anywhere except in their wheelchairs. Also, I have hundreds of stories from people who have injured while being transferred by airline personnel who were not trained and of their wheelchairs being damaged by baggage handlers.

With the globalization of our society, there is an increased need for EVERYONE to be able to fly…not just those who can sit in the seats of airplanes. It’s time to update the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)  of 1986 and allow people who need to remain in their wheelchairs for health and safety reasons to do so while flying.

For people who are not familiar with traveling in an electric wheelchair, what are the kinds of preparations a person should take in order to fly?

First of all, when making the reservation, deal directly with the airlines and communicate your needs and make your reservations early to insure that you get one of the airline’s “aisle wheelchairs” to use while boarding and departing the airplane. Also, request to be pre-boarded. Get the name of the person with whom you spoke in case you have problems the day of your flight. Do not make your reservations online. Secondly, if your headrest, joystick, seat cushions, and foot rests are easy to remove, do so. Keep them with you at all times, as those are the parts that are most frequently damaged or lost. Finally, label your wheelchair with your name, destination, home address, and telephone number where you can be reached in case it gets lost. Disabled travelers in the U.S. can order a free booklet from the U.S. Department of Transportation outlining information for traveling with a wheelchair by telephoning PVA Distribution Center at: 888-860-7244 (Order No. 2100-16).

What have your worst and best experiences been as an airline passenger who is a wheelchair user?

My worst experience was when I flew from Phoenix to San Antonio, and the airline lost my seat cushion. My best experience was flying from Travis Air Force Base in California to Honolulu on a military Med-Evac transport plane in my wheelchair secured by a four point tie down system.

What do you say to wheelchair users who want to fly but are afraid to? What kind of advice would you give them?

Never fly alone. Either take your most experienced attendant or someone equally knowledgeable of your specific needs in case something happens. Airline do drop the ball, so be proactive. Communicate your needs from the moment that you first make your reservations. And, research your rights as a passenger. These rights are found at:

What’s your advice if someone experienced discrimination while boarding and exiting the plane as a disabled person? What can someone do if baggage staff damaged a person’s wheelchair?

In both cases, ask to speak with the airline’s Complaint Resolution Officer (CRO) immediately. You cannot be discriminated against boarding an airplane unless your disability would endanger the health or safety of other passengers, or transporting the person would be a violation of FAA safety rules.  Keep in mind this can apply to someone who airline personnel determine is unable to assist themselves. Generally, airline personnel may not ask what specific disability the person has, but they can ask questions about a person’s ability to perform specific air travel-related functions, such as boarding, deplaning, or walking through the airport. Admitting that you have difficulty with one or more of these tasks also does not allow the airline to deny you travel.  Rather, the airline must be able to tell you how the safety of all passengers would be affected by your presence on the flight.  In the event that your wheelchair is lost or damaged, the CRO will assist you in filing a formal complaint, and the replacement or damages will be covered at the airlines expense.

What is your goal for this petition? What kinds of changes would you like to see in the transportation industry for people who use wheelchairs in providing better access?

The goal for the Airline Accessibility Petition is to bring awareness to the issue and to get Congress and the President to amend the ACAA to allow people who need to remain seated in their power wheelchairs for health and safety reasons to do so. In turn, it is hoped that the major airline companies will modify their airplanes so that on one side of the first row of seats may be removed as needed to provide space for wheelchairs that are secured with the Qstraint restraining system. The Federal Aviation Administration is very open to making this a reality; however, the Department of Transportation and the Airlines themselves need to be convinced. Plus, formal crash testing must be done So, this will be quite an involved process before wheelchair users can be allowed to fly in their chairs. Bringing public awareness to the issue is key.

Airline Accessibility Petition

Facebook group for the Airline Accessibility Petition

Native Texan, Vicki Jurney-Taylor grew up in a military family and has lived in Oklahoma, Florida, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, California, and Hawaii before returning to Texas to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio (U.T.S.A) to study English and then received a graduate degree in Rehabilitation Counseling at the University of North Texas. Additionally, she has earned an Advanced Certification in Nonprofit Management from U.T.S.A.. Her educational and employment background in the disability advocacy field, coupled with her personal experience as a person who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, has uniquely qualified her as an advocate and strategist for systems change with regard to inclusion and accessibility in the areas of independent living, employment, recreation, transportation and travel, worship, education, government, technology, communications, and consumerism.

Most recently, Vicki has been working as a Community Organizer with the nonprofit organization, All Wheels Up, Inc., whose mission is to advocate for equality in air travel for those in a wheelchair for mobility and safe seating. Utilizing her skills as a grassroots organizer and as a communications specialist, she has drafted a petition which has more than 18,000 to date, as well as created a social media buzz, requesting Congress to require the airline industry to provide spaces on commercial flights for passengers who must remain seated in their wheelchairs for health and safety reasons.

Follow Vicki on Twitter: @VickiJurney

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