United Airlines Destroys $30,000 Wheelchair of Activist Returning From Disability Rights Rally

Activist Fights for Compensation from United, Now Stuck at Home After Her “Worst Nightmare Came True” During Disability Pride Month

LOS ANGELES (July 15, 2021)— United Airlines destroyed a $30,000 power wheelchair belonging to long-time disability rights activist Engracia Figueroa, 51, who was traveling back Wednesday, July 14th from a disability rights march and rally in the nation’s capital. When United Airlines delivered Figueroa her wheelchair, it was so contorted that she was unable to sit in it and turn it on. 

“It was like my worst nightmare came true,” said Figueroa, Board President of Communities Actively Living and Free, an independent living center in downtown Los Angeles. “My wheelchair is custom made for me and my spinal cord injury. It’s a $30,000 machine that is not easy to replace, and without it I am now stuck at home.” 

Adding insult to injury, Figueroa then spent more than four hours at the Los Angeles International Airport filing a damage report with the airline who treated her with condescension, and waiting for a loaner power wheelchair to become available.

Figueroa is now fighting for United to compensate her for the harm she suffered, including the cost of replacing her power chair valued at $30,000.

Figueroa was returning from the #CareIsEssential rally in Washington D.C., where she and Christine Laing, a homecare worker who provides personal care for Engracia, both spoke about the need for more investment in homecare for disabled people and older adults. Both Figueroa and Laing are active members of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, which brings home care consumers and workers together to fight for policy change.

“We were treated so disrespectfully,” said Laing, who immigrated from Jamaica in 2003 and is a leader with SEIU 2015, the union for homecare workers. “We had to fight to get a glass of water after sitting there for hours. I kept thinking that they would never treat us this way if we were white.” 

Unfortunately, Figueroa’s experience is common among wheelchair users. Airlines do not allow wheelchair users to board their flights using their chairs, which must instead be stored with other cargo during the flight. A recent Washington Post article estimated that airlines have damaged over 15,000 wheelchairs since 2018—roughly 29 per day.

The wheelchair that the airline loaned to Figueroa also caused her physical injury—she ended up sitting for four hours in a wheelchair with a broken armrest and a seat too small to fit the cushion she requires to support her body. “I woke up the next day in excruciating pain in my legs and ribs,” said Figueroa. “My jaw also throbbed from clenching my teeth for so long.” 

The loaned wheelchair only provides Figueroa limited mobility, so she cannot leave her home until she receives a new wheelchair.

July is Disability Pride Month and this week marks the 30 year anniversary of when Engracia became disabled due to a spinal cord injury and left leg amputation. 

“United Airlines just redisabled me,” she said. “Nobody should have to live in fear that they will lose their independence due to an airplane ride, but for people with disabilities that’s exactly what we have to go through every time we step on a plane.” 

“United should publicly apologize for how they treated us,” said Figueroa. “All airlines need to do better by hiring disabled people on their staff, training their staff to know how to respectfully interface with disabled customers, and to handle their critical equipment.” 


Updated November 3rd, 2021: Since the writing of this statement Engracia Figueroa has passed away due to complications from injuries she sustained when United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair last July. Read more here.