Engracia Figueroa, a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, died as a result of complications from injuries she sustained in July when United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair.
Hand in Hand, a national network of domestic workers who advocate for dignified working conditions, announced Figueroa’s death. She was a member of the California chapter.
“Engracia Figueroa, a staunch advocate for people with disabilities, died on Sunday as a result of complications from injuries sustained when United Airlines destroyed her custom wheelchair last July.” Figueroa was described by the organization as a joyful, fierce, and creative leader who was also an actor, animal rights activist, surfer, and devout vegan.
In July, the California woman represented Hand in Hand at a rally and art installation in Washington, D.C., where activists hoped to persuade Congress to invest in the home care system.
Figueroa was returning from Washington, D.C., on United Airlines when she discovered her $30,000 custom-designed wheelchair had been destroyed in the cargo hold.
According to Hand in Hand, the wheelchair was specifically designed to support Figueroa’s spinal cord injury and left leg amputation. The mobility device was regarded as critical to her independence and health.
“Mobility aids function as an extension of our bodies. We become re-disabled when they are damaged or destroyed. Flying will remain inaccessible until airlines learn to treat our devices with the care and respect they deserve,” in an interview following the incident, the activist stated.
Figueroa was stuck in the airport for five hours with her friend and home care worker Christine Laing, according to Hand in Hand, and during that time she was forced to sit in a broken, manual wheelchair.
“Her struggle to maintain her balance over that length of time in the faulty device led to significant injuries. When she was finally able to return home, she experienced acute pain, and was admitted to the hospital multiple times in the subsequent months,” the organization wrote on its website. “Not only did United Airlines refuse to replace the demolished wheelchair, insisting that it could be repaired, but the loaner chair they provided further exacerbated her injuries.”
United Airlines eventually agreed to cover the cost of Figueroa’s chair, but Hand in Hand claimed that the months of wrangling over a replacement had a negative impact on the activist’s health.
According to the organization, the loaner chair provided by the airline did not properly support Figueroa’s body or distribute her weight.
This resulted in her developing a skin ulcer, which became infected, and Figueroa experiencing gastrointestinal issues that made eating difficult, according to Hand in Hand. Figueroa was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit two weeks ago and died on October 31.
“All of us at Hand in Hand are heartbroken, shocked and enraged by Engracia’s needless death. This loss should never have happened. While we are reeling from the layers of injustice this tragedy makes visible, we are holding Engracia’s tenacity and resolve as our guidepost,” the organization wrote. “Our work has a direct impact on people’s lives, and our current ableist and racist system continues to fail our communities on a regular basis. We cannot and will not stand by and allow oppressive systems to prevail.”
Following the July incident, a United spokesperson stated that the company apologized to Figueroa and was working with the repair company to reach an agreement. According to the Department of Transportation, airlines damage or destroy 29 mobility devices per day.
“As Engracia’s story demonstrates, the consequences of this ableism and mistreatment are devastating,” wrote Hand in Hand.