New Bill of Rights for Travelers with Disabilities Won’t Replace Self-Advocacy 

Juanita Lillie’s love for traveling began while she was a student at Grand Valley State University, when she studied abroad in Costa Rica in 2013. 

That experience led Lillie, who is blind, to become a resource for others with disabilities when it comes to traveling.  

“I started a community where I helped other disabled individuals go abroad to empower people to travel,” said Lillie, who launched the community while a student at GVSU. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature, followed by a master’s in international education, she now works for the federal government in Alpena. 

Bill of Rights 

 Over the summer, the Department of Transportation released the first Bill of Rights for air travelers with disabilities. Established under the Air Carrier Access Act, these rights are intended to empower air travelers with disabilities to understand and assert their rights, and help ensure that U.S. and international air carriers and their contractors uphold the following rights: 

  1. The right to be treated with dignity and respect. 
  2. The right to receive information about services and aircraft capabilities and limitations. 
  3.  The right to receive information in an accessible format. 
  4. The right to accessible airport facilities. 
  5. The right to assistance at airports. 
  6. The right to assistance on the aircraft. 
  7. The right to travel with an assistive device or service animal. 
  8. The right to receive seating accommodations. 
  9. The right to accessible aircraft features. 
  10. The right to resolution of a disability-related issue. 

Maneuvering through an airport can be challenging for those with a disability, some of whom have to rely on others for help. During her first time traveling alone, Lillie almost missed her flight because she was taken to the wrong gate.  

“I told (the airport assistant) it’s your responsibility to help me out,” said Lillie, who remembers feeling panicked that the flight was going to be boarding. She had to be insistent about being helped to the correct gate or she would have missed her flight. It was a good lesson for her.  

Since then, she has traveled to more than a dozen states, from California to Vermont. While she’s glad to see the Bill of Rights for travelers with disabilities, she believes she will continue to need to advocate for herself so airlines and even the federal agencies like the Transportation Security Administration, which handles airport security, follow the rules.  

‘I have to educate them’ 

“The Americans with Disabilities Act has been around since 1990, but people don’t necessarily follow it,” Lillie said. “I’ve been to airports where I’ve had to contact airline management or the Department of Transportation directly about issues. I think the concept of the Bill of Rights is great, but at the end of the day you still have to practice self-advocacy, unfortunately.” 

Lillie, who was born with retinitis pigmentosa, has been legally blind since birth. She has used a cane for most of her life and began working with a leader dog in 2017. She remembers one time going through airport security when a TSA worker asked her to take off her leader dog’s leash and harness. 

“I said I’m not going to take off the leash because that’s not permissible,” she said. “Sometimes you get people in TSA who don’t know what to do with a service dog. I have to educate them.”  

Passengers with disabilities who have pressing questions about their rights can speak with the airline’s complaint resolution official. Federal law requires airlines to have such an official available at each airport they serve during all times the airline is operating there. Passengers also may contact the DOT Disability Hotline at 1-800-778-4838. 

Photo courtesy of Juanita Lillie

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