Dominicana Jillian Mercado Had To Watch As Airport Staff Broke Her Wheelchair And She’s Not The Only One Who Has Experienced This
For model and disability activist, Jillian Mercado, travel is a regular part of her schedule. About every three weeks, Mercado flies as part of her job and she has used almost every single airline through the course of her travels. No matter what airline she chooses, the result is always the same. Without fail, there is always a problem with airline workers properly checking and stowing her electric wheelchair. Mercado has spastic muscular dystrophy that tightens her tendons and muscles. As such, walking for any substantial amount of time quickly becomes very exhausting for the disabled activist. In order to aid her mobility, Mercado regularly uses a wheelchair.
“It gives me the freedom to move around and be extremely independent,” Mercado recently shared with FIERCE by mitú. “Without it, my life is pretty much put on pause.”
The model’s most recent interaction with an airline resulted in her chair being manipulated to the point of breaking.
While traveling out of JFK Airport, Mercado encountered an unfortunately common situation. As per usual, the model filled out the “Claim At Gate” voucher for her assistive device — her 300-pound electric wheelchair. The claim allows her to write down all instructions for her wheelchair so airport workers are able to move and stow the device without problems. Mercado also always verbally explains the important details of her chair’s care to (hopefully) prevent any damage from being done.
There’s also a box to mark if one’s wheelchair can fold down or not. Mercado’s specific chair does not fold down and she was sure to note this both on the form and verbally. Still, it didn’t do anything to stop what happened once her chair was checked.
“There is too many times where — even though you go by the book and add your extra steps — everything is looked past and done by their own accord,” Mercado explained. “In this incident that’s exactly what happened.”
The flight would be delayed by three hours because the airline had difficulties forwarding the model’s chair.
The disabled activist was told about the difficulty surrounding her chair while she was seated on the full plane. Mercado told FIERCE that she felt embarrassed knowing that the plane full of people knew that her wheelchair was the reason for the delay. Six hours later, she was at her destination but still had to wait an additional hour to get her wheelchair.
Once she saw it being wheeled towards her, Mercado knew there was something majorly wrong with the situation. Realizing what the issue was, she went live on Instagram to document the damage.
“I realized that my chair was not the way that I left it,” the model explained. “They completely snapped the backside where I rest my upper body forward. Like I mentioned before, my chair does not fold and here I saw it completely folded. Soon after, I realized that some cables were also pulled apart. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me once again.”
Mercado had no recourse besides reporting the damage at baggage claim.
It’s important to note that wheelchairs and other assistance devices are not baggage. They’re essential to the mobility and freedom of their users. Often, without access to their devices, disabled people are left to seek aid from friends, family or the kindness of strangers. It’s a completely dehumanizing experience. There is no piece of luggage that can compare to the importance of these devices.
Mercado had to be pushed in a manual wheelchair by an airport worker to report her damaged chair. She was then stuck at the airport without a chair she could leave in and without the ability to get anywhere on her own. Luckily, the model had some friends in the area who were able to help her but she easily could have been stranded without access to the device that affords her freedom.
Mercado has yet to receive a suitable response from JFK about the damage to her chair.
Twitter / @jilly_peppa
The only answer Mercado received was an unspecific tweet from JFK Airport. The tweet reads:
“Jillian, we are so sorry that you had to be put through this at our airport. We hope that your chair was functional when you arrived at your next destination. You should reach out to the airline directly if you need to make a claim for any damage to the wheelchair. Good luck.”
Mercado pointed out that the clear lack of a personalized and caring response goes to prove that the airport lacks any disabled representation in leadership.
“This definitely would have not happened if somebody internally knew how important our devices are. I always say: you can’t speak about us without us in the conversation.”
To encourage other disabled Twitter users to share their travel horror stories, Mercado has encouraged the use of the hashtag #DisabledAirlineHorror.
Traveling while disabled is oftentimes difficult and uncomfortable but it is something that disabled people can do on their own as long as they are given access to the tools needed. Most importantly, Mercado wants the abled people who read her story to understand that disabled people have the right to live — and access to everything that comes with life.
“It’s already enough that society already has us in this stereotype were we don’t go out, aren’t fashionable or date but to experience life is to live it as you please,” Mercado insisted. “We are human beings just like everyone else. If you are going to provide a service, provide it to everyone with respect. This is how we literally move forward in life. That should be respected.”