Engracia Figueroa, an amputee with a spinal cord injury, had her wheelchair broken on a United Airlines flight.
The subsequent use of non-custom chairs led to sores, which got infected, which led to her death.
“This loss should never have happened,” said Hand in Hand, an organization Figueroa worked with.
A woman has died after sustaining injuries caused by United Airlines breaking her specialized wheelchair, according to the advocacy group she worked with.
Engracia Figueroa, 51, from LA, had her wheelchair destroyed after returning from the Care Can’t Wait Rally in Washington DC in July 2021. She was representing Hand in Hand, a domestic rights group with whom she worked.
Figueroa, a disability rights activist and president of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free in downtown Los Angeles, lived with a spinal cord injury and left leg amputation after being hit by a Bay Area Rapid Transit train 30 years ago.
She had to wait five hours, said Hand in Hand, in a manual wheelchair in the airport when she discovered her custom-made chair was broken, leading to the development of a pressure sore resulting from her being unable to balance.
“I just thought, all of the independence that I fought and strived for and successfully survived for soon to be 30 years by the minute, it’s stripped away, and I was completely disabled and traumatized, as well as hurt and exhausted,” she told ABC7 News.
Hand in Hand described Figueroa’s lengthy battle with United to get a replacement chair, which meant she had to use a loaner wheelchair provided by the airline that was not built for her body.
Ultimately, United Airlines agreed to replace Engracia’s chair valued at $30,000. However, the months in which she fought for the replacement took a toll on her body, said the Hand in Hand statement.
In July, Figueroa released a statement saying, “It was like my worst nightmare came true…This has been the most horrific experience of my 51 years living.”
In their statement announcing her death, the organization explained how the sore became severely infected, with the infection ultimately reaching her hip bone and requiring two emergency surgeries. Figueroa died on October 31.
Hand in Hand said, “All of us at Hand in Hand are heartbroken, shocked, and enraged by Engracia’s needless death. This loss should never have happened.
“Lives are at stake in the work that we do, and our current ableist and racist system continue to fail our communities time and time again.”
Thousands of wheelchairs are broken every year by airlines in the USA. Disability advocate and wheelchair user Bri Scalesse raised the life-threatening repercussions with Insider in a recent interview.
“I think that’s something that people don’t realize is our skin is so reliant on the cushions that we sit on and the way that our bodies fit. If you’re sitting on the wrong thing for even four days, you’re going to have a sore – and that can then literally threaten your life,” she said.
Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois raised the importance of valuing wheelchairs as an extension of the human body – something Figueroa also lobbied for.
“Wheelchairs should be treated like a human limb because they’re my legs,” Duckworth told Insider last month.
A United spokesperson stated to Insider, “we were saddened to hear about Ms. Figueroa’s passing and we offer our condolences to her family and friends.”
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