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'Helpless and humiliated': Man details difficulties of flying in a wheelchair

While Shane Burcaw feels grateful there was no permanent damage to his wheelchair, he shared his story to raise awareness about flying with a wheelchair.
/ Source: TODAY

When Hannah Burcaw claimed husband Shane Burcaw’s motorized wheelchair after their flight from Minneapolis to Orlando, she said it wouldn't turn on. After trying several hacks, she said it became clear something was wrong. She also noted one of the footrests had also fallen off. Hannah and Shane shared their experience on social media, highlighting the difficulties people with wheelchairs and scooters face when it comes to flying.

“I was lucky. To be delayed by several hours felt like a blessing compared to what could have happened. To feel helpless and humiliated being pushed through the airport and flopping around like a ragdoll in my broken chair was as bad as it got for me,” Shane shared on Instagram. “But I do feel lucky — I’ve been conditioned to accept anything better than complete wheelchair destruction as a victory when flying."

The couple star in their YouTube channel called "Squirmy and Grubs," where they share what it’s like being a couple where one person has a disability and the other does not. Shane has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that causes muscle weakness and wasting because of the loss of motor neurons, which control muscles. Since he was 2, Shane has been in a wheelchair. Flying with a wheelchair often comes with a sense of apprehension.

“My chair gets banged up or significantly damaged almost every time we fly, which is why we bring the tools,” Shane told TODAY, via email. “I’ve had my chair returned to me in pieces. I have had essential items lost. It’s very frustrating.”

In fact, he tagged Delta on Instagram prior to his trip “begging” them to store his wheelchair safely so it wouldn't break.

Shane is not alone. In May, a woman shared a TikTok of her friend who was upset after her wheelchair was broken during a flight. When the staff mentioned they could get her another wheelchair, she told them that it was essential for her to have her wheelchair.

“It’s made for me,” she said tearfully in the video.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois shared the video on Twitter saying:

“I know from personal experience that when an airline damages a wheelchair, it is more than a simple inconvenience. It was like taking my legs away from me again,” she wrote. “Every traveler deserves dignity and respect.”

Duckworth’s own experiences with damaged wheelchairs led her to spearhead legislation that requires airlines to report damaged scooters and wheelchairs to the US. Department of Transportation. The organization began tracking in December 2018. From January to December 2019, before most Americans stopped traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic, airlines “mishandled” more than 10,000 wheelchairs or scooters.

In 2019 Duckworth spoke to TODAY about why monitoring how airlines handle wheelchairs and scooters is important.

“Wheelchairs and motorized scooters are essentially a part of their users’ bodies,” she said. “Without them we are no longer mobile.”

For Shane and Hannah, the non-working wheelchair caused some panic. They weren’t sure if they could attend the conference where they were speaking if they couldn’t get the chair's electrical system working again. They said the back was reclined so far that Shane couldn’t sit securely in it as Hannah and others manually pushed the electric wheelchair through the airport.

“There was an electrical issue that Hannah was able to repair with the help of a friendly wheelchair tech from the conference we were speaking at. My foot rest needed to be reattached,” Shane said. “Thankfully, there was no lasting damage at this time.”

Delta shared the following statement with TODAY:

We’re sorry about the inconvenience caused to this customer after he arrived on a flight to Orlando last week when the power supply circuit breaker on his intact wheelchair needed to be reset. Our teams were supporting him and his party throughout their travels including troubleshooting assistance at his direction. The wheelchair was fully working approximately one hour after his arrival. We look forward to hearing his continued feedback in addition to our ongoing input from our own Advisory Board on Disability, which is the industry’s longest-running sounding board on how we can continually improve the travel experience for our customers with disabilities.

Shane said it was important to share his experience to encourage airlines to rethink how they handle wheelchairs and scooters.

“The technology to safely secure a wheelchair in the cabin of an airplane has been invented and tested to work successfully,” he said. “We would like to see the FAA and major airlines invest serious resources into implementing solutions that will allow wheelchair users to remain in their chairs on flights.”

Until then, Shane said better training could go a long way.

“There’s lots that can be done to improve the systems used to handle wheelchairs during the flight,” he said. “More training for grounds crew handling the chairs. Better lift equipment. Wider luggage door compartments so that wheelchairs fit easily.”