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Paraplegic man forced to crawl to his seat on Delta flight due to lack of help

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Sean Chang

 

A paraplegic Korean-American man had to crawl on the floor to get to his seat on a Delta Air Lines flight, sparking controversy.

Sean Chang, 26, recounted his challenging experience on Delta flight DL838 from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at around 8:45 a.m. on November 3.

“I am a paraplegic and need to use a wheelchair to get around, and with only 10 minutes to go before takeoff, I was not offered any assistance to board,” Chang said. “Delta told me, ‘We do not have a wheelchair seat available, and we will not call for help’ because I did not make a special request in advance for wheelchair assistance.”

Chang, aware of the challenges he faces as a paraplegic, especially with restroom access during flights, had not eaten for 24 hours before the four-hour trip. Waiting for another flight was out of the question, so he had no choice but to crawl to his seat.

“As a disabled traveler with many mobility restrictions, I rarely eat before a flight to avoid the hassle of using the in-flight restroom,” Chang said. “It was extremely humiliating having people looking down at me as I crawled to my seat while weakened from not eating.”

Delta acknowledged the incident in a statement to USA Today, stating “Although Delta employees offered to move the customer to a direct flight less than 1.5 hours later to allow for proper boarding assistance, the customer opted to board himself.”

“To provide you with the best service, we recommend customers in need of mobility assistance share this information ahead of their journey, a feature available on delta.com and in the Fly Delta App,” the statement said.

In contrast, Chang disputes Delta’s account, asserting that the airline’s claim and his experience are completely different. “Delta’s claim and my experience are completely different,” Chang said. “At the time, Delta did not provide accurate information and times for my next flight, so it was unclear how many hours I would have to wait. The security check, which takes an average of 30 minutes, was delayed by more than an hour and a half that day.”

When Chang was told that he could not get help on board, he asked, “Am I really going to have to crawl to get to my seat?”, but the flight attendant replied, “You’re on your own,” according to Chang. “Even though there was an ‘aisle chair’ space for people with disabilities, they didn’t offer me.”

Chang reflected on the state of disability awareness in the U.S., acknowledging that despite better awareness, discrimination remains a significant challenge. “What I had to go through cannot be compensated for with money, and this needs to be fundamentally readdressed.”

The Federal Transit Administration weighed in on Chang’s story.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said the agency is considering new rules for airlines to reduce such incidents. The federal law currently limits travelers with disabilities to sue airlines directly.

“The 2018 federal court ruling in the stroke versus southwest lawsuit prevents travelers with disabilities from suing privately,” Chang said. “They can only sue through the department, and even then, has to be physically injured to sue.”

“I am prohibited from having direct contact with Delta Air Lines,” he said. “By publicizing this case, I hope to bring attention to the injustices faced by people with disabilities, ensure their rights, and address the underlying causes.”

In 2016, at 18, Chang experienced a life-altering car accident while fatigued from studying for final exams. “The car flew through the air,” he recalled. “I was diagnosed as a paraplegic after the accident.” Having to abandon his dreams of becoming a doctor, Chang began to focus on cooking, something he had been interested in since childhood.

BY YEJIN KIM, HOONSIK WOO    [kim.yejin3@koreadaily.com]