Disabled activist dies after United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair

Advocacy group says ‘broken’ replacement wheelchair was to blame

Gino Spocchia
Friday 05 November 2021 17:27 GMT

Disabled activist speaks after United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair

A well known disability activist has reportedly died from complications associated with the loss of her custom wheelchair, which was destroyed during a United Airlines flight.

Engracia Figueroa, 51, was admitted to an ICU unit about two weeks ago and according to Hand in Hand, a US-wide network advocating for dignified working conditions, died on Sunday.

United Airlines allegedly destroyed her custom-made wheelchair during a flight from Washington DC to California, her home. It was damaged in the cargo-hold.

Despite having a spinal cord injury and left leg amputation, Ms Figueroa was allegedly forced to wait five hours after landing at an airport.

She was provided with another wheelchair that Hand in Hand said was “broken”, and caused her discomfort and further injury.

“When she was finally able to return home, she experienced acute pain, and was admitted to the hospital multiple times in the subsequent months”, it was alleged.

The replacement wheelchair was said to have not supported her back and weight distribution properly, and “because of this, she developed a skin ulcer that became infected, and gastrointestinal issues that made eating difficult”. 

She died of those complications in an ICU on Sunday, in what Hand in Hand said was a “needless death” that had “shocked and enraged” friends of Ms Figueroa.

“This loss should never have happened. While we are reeling from the layers of injustice this tragedy makes visible, we are holding Engracia’s tenacity and resolve as our guidepost,” the advocacy network said.

Ms Figueroa, in an interview with ABC7 News in August, said she feared flying because her custom-made wheelchair was an “extension” of her body.

“We always hope that when we give you this extension of our body, that you are going to give it back to us in the same way,” said the activist of disabled passengers. “It’s basically seeing your whole life ripped from you, and being re-disabled all over again”.  

According to figures from the US Department of Transportation, airlines on average mishandle about 10,500 mobility devices annyually, amounting to almost 30 a day.

Acting under the Air Carrier Access Act, United Airlines agreed to fully replace Ms Figueroa’s wheelchair, which was valued at $30,000 (£22,320).

Hand in Hand said that “the months in which they fought against the replacement took a toll on her body”, although United Airlines has said previously that it was working to fix the wheelchair as “quickly as possible”.

United Airlines told The Independent: “We were saddened to hear about Ms Figueroa’s passing and we offer our condolences to her family and friends.”

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