Engracia Figueroa was a disability activist who died after shining a spotlight on the need for disability rights in airline travel. Figueroa’s death came months after her wheelchair was “destroyed” on a United Airlines flight, advocates said. She spent her final weeks highlighting the issues in airline travel for disabled people, an extension of her longtime fight for disability rights.
United Airlines provided Figueroa with a new wheelchair, but she had used a loaner wheelchair for months that did not compare to her custom wheelchair, according to Hand in Hand.
“We were saddened to hear about Ms. Figueroa’s passing and we offer our condolences to her friends and family,” United Airlines said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Figueroa, 51, died Sunday, October 31, 2021, two weeks after she was admitted to the intensive care unit for an infected skin ulcer and gastrointestinal problems, the news outlet reported. She was a Los-Angeles based disability rights activist, aspiring actress and animal rights activist, her Communities Actively Living Independent & Free (CALIF) profile says.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Figueroa Shared a Series of Videos on Facebook Sharing the Damage to Her $30,000 Wheelchair
Figueroa shared videos on her Facebook page July 14, 2021, saying that her custom wheelchair had been destroyed on a United Airlines flight.
“United Airlines f***** up my wheelchair,” she said on the first video from the airport in her hometown of Los Angeles. “Totally broke it. F***** it up, and I’m sitting here stuck, because my wheelchair is just f***** up. I can’t move nowhere. I can’t do s***.”
Figueroa turns the camera from herself onto a wheelchair on the floor.
“That’s my wheelchair over there, dead as f***,” she said.
She accused the airline of “cramming everything in” “because that’s how they make money.”
She shared another video about two hours later and said she was “exhausted” and that she had been up since 3 a.m.
“United didn’t even say, ‘Do you want a glass of water?'” she said.
She later added she was given a $40 food voucher after telling staff she was hungry.
About 45 minutes later, she started another video wiping her face. She said she had been in Los Angeles for hours.
“How is it that we’re constantly fighting for independence and liberation for disabled people?” she said.
2. Figueroa Had a Dream to Build a Career in Acting, Advocated for Food Justice & Promoted Veganism
In addition to her fight for disability rights, Figueroa was also passionate in the fight for animal rights, her Communities Actively Living Independent & Free (CALIF) profile says.
“She’s actively pursuing her acting dreams along with animal rights and food justice for all beings but her own personal life has been the catalyst of disability community involvement and advocacy,” her CALIF profile says. “She’s a Bay Area sports fan (A’s, Giants and Raiders), loves to surf, shop, go to restaurants, everything related to the Arts, travel and cooking vegan food and trying to ‘veganize’ recipes.”
She was the youngest of six siblings and a native of the Bay Area, her profile says.
Non-profit organization Hand in Hand described her as “a fierce advocate for people with disabilities.”
Madelaine Reis, a fellow activist and friend, told USA Today Figueroa was “scared and exhausted” following her hospitalization.
“She was kind of just exhausted that she’s had to, like a lot of disability activists, they’re advocating for their own rights and needs, so she was just tired but continued to fight,” Reis told USA Today.
3. Figueroa Was Disabled at Age 22 in an Accident
Figueroa said on her Facebook page that her wheelchair was destroyed the day before the 30th anniversary of her accident that caused her disability. Communities Actively Living Independent & Free (CALIF), an independent living center and non-profit organization, said she became disabled in an accident at age 22.
“She’s worked in the insurance industry since high school until she acquired her disability in a sudden accident at the age of 22. Learning to adjust to the newness of being a disabled woman became her new normal in life,” her CALIF profile said.
Figueroa said on her video that the destruction of her wheelchair caused her to be “disabled again” and “re-disabled.”
Figueroa was the board president and secretary of CALIF, her profile said. She became a board member in October 2017.
4. Advocacy Group Hand in Hand Attributed Figueroa’s Death to Injuries Sustained Due to the Loss of Her Wheelchair
Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, wrote that Figueroa’s death was caused by injuries she sustained without her wheelchair. The article explained her wheelchair “was custom-designed to support her spinal cord injury and left leg amputation.”
“Engracia’s wheelchair was critical to her independence, as well as essential to maintaining her health,” the article added.
Hand in Hand reported she developed a pressure sore while sitting in a broken wheelchair in the airport and “experienced acute pain” after returning home. She was admitted to the hospital, the article said.
The article said the airline said they would repair her wheelchair, but provided her with a loaner that “exacerbated her injuries.”
Hand in Hand wrote:
Ultimately, United Airlines agreed to fully replace Engracia’s chair valued at $30,000. However, the months in which they fought against the replacement took a toll on her body.
While fighting with United to replace her chair, Engracia was forced to use a loaner chair that was not properly fitted to Engracia’s body. This further exacerbated her pressure sore, and caused muscle spasms, severe edema, and an inability to eat, as well as two additional hospitalizations. The sore became infected and the infection eventually reached her hip bone, requiring emergency surgery to remove the infected bone and tissue. Engracia passed away in the morning on Sunday, October 31st, 2021.
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. Lives are at stake in the work that we do, and our current ableist and racist system continues to fail our communities time and time again. We cannot and will not stand by and let these systems of oppression prevail.
5. Figueroa Was Returning Home From a Disability Rights Campaign When Her Wheelchair Was ‘Destroyed’
Figueroa was flying home the day her wheelchair was damaged after representing Hand in Hand in Washington, DC to advocate for disability rights, said an article from the organization.
“Last July, Engracia represented Hand in Hand in Washington DC at the Care Can’t Wait Rally and Communities of Care art installation to demand that Congress make investments in our broken home care system. She spoke alongside friend and home care worker Christine Laing, about the necessity of raising wages for home care workers and ensuring reliable, high-quality support for all. Together they advocated for making home care jobs good jobs, to both enable workers to support their families as well as to address the widespread workforce shortages, which often leads to forced institutionalization of people with disabilities and older adults,” the article said.
The incident prompted a widespread petition calling on better services for those with disabilities on flights.
“We demand that United Airlines end the damage of wheelchairs and assistive devices on its flights and create an accessible process for people with disabilities to travel safely, with dignity,” Hand in Hand wrote.
The petition says that airlines damage or destroy 29 wheelchairs every day.