CW: Injury & Death
Karen McGee, a 71-year-old Florida resident who is deaf, is considering suing the city of Austin after what was meant to be a three-hour layover at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport turned into an arrest, a weekend in the Travis County Prison, and an arm broken by an officer and left untreated for three days.
McGee’s ordeal began on the afternoon of September 13, 2022, as she waited for a connecting flight from Austin to Seattle. She was flying alone for the first time in her life, and she was anxious since her hearing aids weren’t working properly, so she sat near the ticket counter to check when her flight would begin boarding.
She spoke with a ticket agent after seeing that it hadn’t boarded on time, and was disappointed to hear that she had missed an announcement that her gate had moved. Because her plane had already left, she was given a ticket for a flight that evening.
While McGee waited for this flight, she texted her cousin and discovered that another jet was parked at the same gate and heading to the same location.
She approached the ticket agent and asked if she could change her ticket to this flight. She couldn’t hear the agent’s response but realized it was a no. She then made the same request to a second agent. Unbeknownst to McGee, the second agent contacted the police.
McGee was brought to the front of the airport in a wheelchair, thinking she was in the process of rebooking her trip. Authorities detained her and brought her to the Travis County Jail on suspicion of trespassing once she was outside.
“All I did was stand up and then they were all around me,” McGee said. “And I don’t remember them saying anything to me, or even to each other.”
At the jail, McGee said, she was shoved against a wall as officers stripped off her clothes, and she screamed, “Not my ring!” when officers began to remove it. She said an officer then told her something she did not understand, she asked, “What?” Another officer twisted her handcuffs with enough force to break her arm.
McGee says that she “lost time” and woke up in a jail cell. Her clothes were on inside out. Her arm ached and she held it close to her body. She was given Aleve but not sent to the hospital.
She fell after leaving the jail. A police officer summoned an emergency medical technician, who assisted her in contacting her husband and finding a hotel room for the night. After returning to Florida, she underwent arm surgery. After examining the trespassing case, County Attorney Delia Garza chose not to prosecute.
Flying is also risky for those who use mobility devices. Since the end of 2018, the country’s top airlines have lost or damaged at least 15,425 wheelchairs or scooters. 10,548 wheelchairs or scooters were lost, damaged, delayed, or stolen in 2019, the first full year of reporting. That works out to about 29 each day. By 2020, it had fallen to 3,464, or 9.5 per day. Passengers reported 712 mishandled devices, or nearly eight per day, in the first quarter of 2021.
In 2021, Engracia Figueroa died after developing a pressure sore, which subsequently became infected. She developed the sore after using a wheelchair that was loaned to her after her wheelchair was damaged by United Airlines.
Air travel should be accessible for people with various disabilities. Without accessible air travel, people with disabilities miss out on attending events, going on vacations, and even medical care. It should not be commonplace for medical equipment to become damaged on a flight. We shouldn’t have to risk our lives to fly on an airplane either.
Brooks, Laken. “Disability Advocate Engracia Figueroa Died after an Airline Damaged Her Wheelchair.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Nov. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lakenbrooks/2021/11/08/disability-advocate-engracia-figueroa-died-after-an-airline-damaged-her-wheelchair/?sh=722eb0f310d7.
Bingamon, Brant. “Austin Jailer Breaks Elderly Deaf Woman’s Arm after Misunderstanding at Airport.” The Austin Chronicle, Austin Chronicle Corp., 24 Mar. 2023, https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2023-03-24/austin-jailer-breaks-elderly-deaf-womans-arm-after-misunderstanding-at-airport/.
Sampson, Hannah. “Airlines Have Lost or Damaged More than 15,000 Wheelchairs since Late 2018.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2021/06/07/wheelchair-scooter-damage-airplane-flights/.
You’re an amazing writer, Liv. It’s just so sad and wrong how people with disabilities are treated. We have to do better.