Airport Forces Two Disabled People To Choose Who Gets One Wheelchair

A call to action for a family member

Kayla Vokolek

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Photo by Carlos Coronado on Unsplash

I have a cousin with Niemann-Pick disease, a rare condition that “can affect the brain, nerves, liver, spleen, bone marrow and, in severe cases, lungs,” mainly in children.

We’ve never really talked — there are a lot of cousins in the family tree of my great-grandma who had 12 children—but I’ve heard about Johnathan’s fundraisers and perseverance.

Social media fills in some blanks. That’s how I learned that upon returning home last Friday from his 199th spinal infusion at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Johnathan and his mother were informed there was only one wheelchair, despite he and another passenger both having requested one beforehand. Such information was marked on their boarding passes.

The other person in need of a wheelchair was an elderly woman on oxygen; as much as Johnathan needed one too, the woman was the clear choice. Still, disability accommodation clearly shouldn’t be based on selflessness and weighing who will suffer less when not given appropriate accommodation.

His mother Rebecca messaged me, “I honestly thought [the flight attendant] was joking when she told us we had to choose.”

No disabled person should have to needlessly endure pain and inconvenience in mobility, but the situation would have been even more of a mess had both passengers been paralyzed, for instance.

Rebecca wrote in the post, “Johnathan had to walk down a bumpy terminal. Not only was it super painful for him he almost fell twice.”

And what if someone is not traveling with anyone to advocate for them? Staff was unkind and unable to give any information about wheelchairs being brought to the terminal and Rebecca had to leave Johnathan behind to traverse the international airport in search of a wheelchair.

Southwest Airlines’ behavior is not only unethical but illegal. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation website, “airlines are required to provide assis­tance with boarding, deplaning and making connections.”

Southwest Airlines promises wheelchair accommodation if given advanced notice and there should be no…

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Kayla Vokolek

Pursuing MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Portland State