By Kaitlyn D’Onofrio
Theresa Purcell was ready for a normal flight to San Diego but this isn’t what she got.
Purcell uses a wheelchair because she suffers from a neurological disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth’s disease. So when she was ready to board the plane, she was stunned to learn she wouldn’t be afforded a ramp. According to airline employees, it was too close to the plane’s departure to set it up.
The situation was degrading for Purcell, she recalls:
“I [said] I can’t walk up on the stairs, and then she was like, so how you going get on the plane then And I was like, oh wow,” Purcell told ABC News affiliate KHON-TV. “I crawled up onto the steps. I crawled into the plane. There was no other way for me to get on the plane so I crawled up to the plane. I was humiliated. It was embarrassing to have 50-something people watch you crawl into a plane.”
Purcell and her attorney, Christy Ho, have filed a lawsuit against the airline company. They received a lengthy apology in response, part of which read:
On behalf of US Airways and American Airlines, please accept our apologies for the difficulties Ms. Purcell experienced with her request for level entry boarding. It is imperative to provide essential care and to have a sensitive approach when assisting our passengers who have special needs.
According to CFR 14 Part 382, carriers must train employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability. Additionally, airlines must promptly provide assistance requested by a customer with a disability in enplaning and deplaning. This assistance must include, as needed, the services of personnel and the use of ground wheelchairs, accessible motorized carts, boarding wheelchairs, and/or on-board wheelchairs, and ramps or mechanical lifts.
However, an apology that simply reiterates a company’s guidelines (which greatly differ from what actually happens, apparently) does not make up for what happened to Purcell.
According to the 2010 census, 18.7 percent of U.S. citizens reported having some type of disability, whether it be in what the census categorizes as a communicative, mental, or physical domain and 12.6 percent stated they had a severe disability. The census goes on to say that “Roughly 30.6 million individuals aged 15 years and older (12.6 percent) had limitations associated with ambulatory activities of the lower body including difficulty walking, climbing stairs, or using a wheelchair, cane, crutches, or walker” like Purcell. This severely restricts or even prohibits people from traveling.
Nearly 600,000 people with disabilities don’t even leave their houses because of transportation restrictions. And for those who are able to travel, they should expect to be able to travel the same way any other passenger would. But horror stories like Purcell’s will likely make them even more hesitant.
Purcell’s tale also shows that simply having guidelines in place is not always enough. Despite the fact that American Airlines alleges that “airlines must promptly provide assistance requested by a customer with a disability in enplaning and deplaning,” this assistance was by no means provided when Purcell attempted to board the plane. And although the company claims its employees must undergo training so they can make appropriate adjustments when needed, this training was not implemented either.
Purcell and Ho requested compensation from the airline, but were told, “American Airlines will not be issuing any compensation for your client’s injuries claim.” Ho stated that she is seeking between $6 and $8 million for Purcell if this case goes to trial.