MILWAUKEE — Sixteen days after Gustave “Gus” Sorenson had gotten out of the Army, returning home to Racine County from a tour of duty in Vietnam, he was involved in a car crash that left him paralyzed.
For the past 49 years, Sorenson, a resident of Sturtevant, has used a wheelchair to get around; air travel in particular has been difficult, he said.
The aisles have seemingly gotten smaller, along with the bathrooms, and for people with disabilities, moving about the cabin can be a daunting task. Occasionally, people can be injured when being transferred from a wheelchair to a seat and vice versa.
The handling of wheelchairs is another issue.
“There’s room for usually one collapsible wheelchair in the closet (of an airplane) where people can hang their suits,” Sorenson said. “Wheelchairs are supposed to take priority over that, but a lot of times when they put (wheelchairs) into the cargo holds, who knows how they put them in there, what they pile on top of them. And there can be a lot of damage done.”
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A federal bill is aiming to help those with disabilities take action if their rights have been violated on an aircraft.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., introduced the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act that, if passed, would benefit air travelers with disabilities.
Sorenson is a member of the Paralyzed Veterans of America which is a group that has been pushing for action on rights for disabled people during air travel.
Members of the Wisconsin Chapter of the PVA met at the War Memorial Center in Milwaukee to advocate for the passage of the Air Carrier Access Amendment Act.
Ken Matthews, a Port Washington resident and PVA board member, said the proposed legislation “would put some teeth” into the Air Carrier Access Act passed in 1986.
Matthews said the proposed legislation would help make planes more accessible, make bathrooms more user-friendly and “overall making it a better trip and a better opportunity for people with disabilities to travel.”
Matthews, a U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran, said if and when the legislation passes, he hopes it will make airlines more responsible for the people and equipment they care for to avoid situations like he has experienced.
Matthews once had his wheelchair put on a different flight.
“I flew in from Seattle one time and I got here to Milwaukee and my chair wasn’t there,” Matthews said. “They couldn’t find it. And it ended up being put on a different flight. So, that’s an interesting dilemma.”
Pushing for the bill
This is the second time Baldwin has introduced this legislation. Last year, some provisions were passed by Congress that included the creation of an advisory committee on air traffic needs of passengers with disabilities to advise the Department of Transportation and it mandated that airlines work with disabled passengers to create a “passengers with disabilities Bill of Rights.”
The bill will be referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which Baldwin sits on.
“Frequent travelers will probably recognize that the direction of the airlines has been going to do everything they can to pack more people into an aircraft,” Baldwin said. “The aisles seem to have gotten thinner … it impacts people who have disabilities in a variety of ways.”
Baldwin said the proposed legislation would allow for referrals of “certain types of passenger complaints to the Department of Justice” and it would establish the ability for those with disabilities to take greater legal action if their equipment is damaged or they are injured on a flight.
“It also really looks forward to say we have the aircraft of today but when you’re designing the plane of tomorrow make sure that you design aircraft with passengers with disabilities in mind,” Baldwin said, adding future designs of aisles, bathrooms and overall space should be accommodating to people with disabilities.
If there is a vote, Baldwin said it’s likely this legislation would be packaged with a larger transportation bill and she is hopeful it will pass.
“The freedom to travel is part of the many freedoms that people take for granted,” Baldwin said. “I am proud to work in partnership with a number of different veterans groups.”
Some PVA members plan to meet with the entire elected Wisconsin delegation in both houses to advocate for its passage.
“We just want to be treated equally,” Sorenson said.