Life with MS

Traveling With Functional Limitations

By Alina Perez, J.D., and John A. Valentine, Ph.D., Florida Atlantic University Health Administration Program
A week ago we were having dinner with a friend. He was all excited about his travel plans and his decision to take his new electric scooter on the plane with him. Since this would be the first time taking the scooter on the plane, he assumed that the airline would have to accommodate him and his scooter and everything would "fly" soft and smooth. What he did not realize was that air travel for the disabled is not as protected as many people think.
Some airlines have outright stopped disabled travelers from flying, while others have made them follow such requirements as sitting close to the bathroom when their limitations became apparent to the flight crew. In addition to such problems as bathroom facilities that are still not fully accessible to the disabled, other problems can occur with the airlines. Complaints of disabled travelers missing their connecting flights because of inadequate help continue, and complaints of damaged wheelchairs by inappropriate handling remain too frequent.
For individuals who feel that they have been mistreated or discriminated against while traveling on an air carrier because of any functional limitation, some agencies or attorneys specialized in the investigation of discrimination against people with disabilities may be able to offer some help. However, this can be a time consuming and expensive process.
Many people mistakenly think that the Americans with Disabilities Act provides the solution to these problems through legal action. While there is a basis for legal recourse in some instances, the ADA does not speak directly to discrimination in the airline industry. Legal protection in the airlines industry comes under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The ACAA was passed by Congress in 1986 and states that "no air carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified handicapped individual by reason of such handicap, in the provision of air transportation."
Yet in spite of this language, the ACAA is not as supportive of disabled travelers pursuing legal action as many people would think. One reason this Act is not as powerful as it might be is because it does not give successful plaintiffs the right to attorneys' fees. Consequently, many attorneys will not take on these cases. In fact, legal action can be so costly and complicated that it may not constitute the best option to remedy the situation. On the other hand, the threat of fines and the fear of bad publicity can be powerful incentives for airlines to find reasonable accommodations for the needs of disabled passengers.
For most people, the best way to assure a successful flight may be to develop a plan to get the services they want in the first place. Some suggestions for doing this are:
Plan ahead. Contact the airlines in advance and let them know what type of services you are going to need. Investigate if the airline has bathroom or other facilities equipped to accommodate passengers with disabilities.
Be reasonable. Get to the airport early. Don't expect the airline to be able to accommodate special requirements if you arrive at the gate shortly before the plane is scheduled to depart.

Be assertive. New staff may be unfamiliar with accommodations that can be made and busy staff sometimes overlook them. But if you did your part and made arrangements with the airline, don't accept anything less than what you were promised.

Be positive. Keep telling yourself and the airline staff that you are confident that they will be able to provide the services you need if they just make a little more effort. Sometimes all we need is reassurance that we can succeed in getting more done than we realize.
A favorite professor once said that the biggest limitations in life are the ones we impose upon ourselves. He may have been right. Of course, we all have limitations that may physically, emotionally, or legally restrict us. But we also have strengths that can overcome those restrictions. With a little bit of thought, planning, and perseverance, those strengths can help many more of us avoid problems when traveling.
(Last reviewed 7/2009)