Answering Engracia’s Call

A year ago, our community lost Engracia Figueroa, a member of Hand in Hand’s California chapter, and a fierce and powerful advocate for people with disabilities. 

Engracia passed away on October 31st, 2021 due to complications from injuries she sustained when United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair on a return flight home from Washington DC— where she and her friend and personal care attendant Christine Laing were representing Hand in Hand at the Care Can’t Wait rally and art installation— to push for federal investments in home and community based services. 

black women with burgundy pants and boots, and green Hand in Hand shirt standing on stage with hands behind back, next to a women sitting win wheelchair with short curly black hair and green honor domestic work shirt speaking.
Christine Laing (left) and Engracia Figueroa (right) speaking at the Care Can’t Wait Rally in July 2021

When Engracia’s wheelchair was destroyed, she called on us to take action on the fight for airline accessibility. While she understood airline accessibility wasn’t a core issue for Hand in Hand, she challenged us to bring visibility to the fact that airlines simply aren’t accessible for wheelchair users. After all, how can we do our work as a national advocacy organization if our members can’t board a plane without risking harm to themselves and their mobility devices? Over the past year we’ve done our best to answer her call, and turn our rage over her death into action.

Fighting for Policy Change

The law governing accessibility for the airlines, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), does not hold the airline industry accountable. In 2021 airlines damaged or destroyed an average of 20 wheelchairs per day. Wheelchair users also risk injury from being transferred to and from their own mobility devices to airline wheelchairs and seats, and airplanes are not required under the law to have accessible bathrooms. The ACAA does not include a private right of action that allows individuals to sue airlines for ACAA violations, and the industry has done little to fix these problems on its own.

We’ve formed partnerships with leaders in the fight for airline accessibility to win policy change, in particular with Paralyzed Veterans for America and the Air Carriers Access Act Working Group. We’ve collected petition signatures from nearly 20,000 people, and gotten over 6,200 letters written to representatives to amend the Air Carrier Access Act. 

In a recent conversation, Heather Ansley, the Associate Executive Director of Government Relations at PVA shared how the visibility of Engracia’s story has shifted the landscape in the fight for accessibility. “Engracia’s death has served as a powerful catalyst for advocates around the nation and pushed forward efforts to improve access to air travel for all people with disabilities” said Ansley.

Recent Moves by the Department of Transportation

We’ve seen this in recent months as the Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken new steps to bring awareness to the rights of airline passengers. In July 2022, the DOT issued the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, in an effort to help disabled passengers know their rights. They also conducted an investigation into the death of Engracia. While the results are pending, we are hopeful that it brings more accountability to United and other airlines. 

Additionally, Hand in Hand’s Director Stacy Kono had the opportunity to honor Engracia and speak about airline accessibility at the Reeve Foundation Summit on a panel alongside PVA and Kelly Buckland, the Disability Policy Advisor at the DOT earlier this month. We were also proud to co-host a virtual Know Your Rights event and discussion on airline access with California Alliance of Retired Americans and San Francisco Senior Disability Action.

3 people in a room white woman on the left with short blonde hair and bangs smilling while hands are folded in the front of her. White man with black hat and grey suit coat and blue denim jeans sit in wheelchair. Asian women with short black hair and glasses and smiling towards the camera.
From Left to Right: Heather Ansley, Associate Executive Director of Government Relations at Paralyzed Veterans for America, Kelly Buckland, Special Advisor on Accessibility at the Department of Transportation, and Stacy Kono, Director of Hand in Hand.

We miss you Engracia

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like Engracia’s death to force the airlines to be safe and accessible. Her death was needless and the result of an ableist system that values profits more than people and nondisabled people more than disabled people.  

As we write this, memories of Engracia’s spirit, tenacity, humor and infectious energy resurface. We feel privileged that she chose Hand in Hand as one of her organizing homes, and graced us with her talents as a speaker and organizer. 

We miss you Engracia. Your smile lit up rooms and filled our hearts. And we honor your memory by fighting like hell. 

photo of Engracia looking at square sculpture of herself, while sitting in wheelchair, with green hand in hand shirt. While she holds her head in the palm of her hands with a shocked expression.
Engracia at the Care Can’t Wait Art Installation by Paola Mendoza— Engracia and her personal care attendant Christine were photographed and shared their stories as part of the installation.