For me, it was a flight and trip from hell. Not because of where I was going, or what I was heading to do, but how I got there and how I was getting home.
It was Monday, May 16th, on Delta flight 2490 leaving out of Louisville at 2:15 PM. My name is Kevin Sparks, president of the Kentucky/Indiana chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA).
It was a trip that I had been looking forward to for many months. A trip that would take me to the 70th annual PVA convention.
So many of our veterans are using the airlines every day, and many of them are running into the same troubles that I ran into on my trip.
Before I boarded, I went through an extensive explanation about my wheelchair. I explained to the Delta airlines staff how the chair should be handled, and what needed to take place. I asked them to let me know what I or Larry, my caregiver, could do to help them with this procedure.
Everyone was in complete agreement, and understood that they had to be careful so there was no damage to the chair.
They allowed Larry to go down with them so he could explain how to load the chair on the plane and lean it back so it would not get in the way.
The chair was loaded, and all seemed to be fine. Larry turned around and as he was walking back up to the plane to join me could not believe his eyes.
After all of the explanations, and all of the talking, what do they do? Right before his eyes, they started dismantling my wheelchair, taking the back off, the arms off, and other things.
He turned around to confront them, and asked what in the world they were doing. One of the men got in his face and told him that it was his plane and they would do whatever they wanted to, and that Larry should be with me.
Keep in mind that I had not even left Louisville yet. Larry arrived back up to where I was sitting and told me of the disaster that was my chair.
At that time, he had no clue at all what had just taken place as I was getting on the plane. I am a quadriplegic, C6-7 incomplete, with serious mobility issues.
However, that did not seem to matter as I tried to explain to them that they cannot just pull, tug, and jerk on me. They were trying to cram me in these small spots like I was a sardine.
I do not believe I have ever been treated with such disrespect, by people who could careless about my life. As Larry got to the seat, I could tell what I fear the most had already happened.
He simply said, Kevin, I’m sorry man, but they took your chair apart and I tried to stop them, but they would not let me near it. I think at that time he could probably tell by the look on my face that I was in a lot of pain, and I just did not care.
I tried to compose myself. He said that they had torn it up but they didn’t give a damn about it.
After all of this, I see the captain/pilot coming my way. He looks at me, and says, are we good now? Are we ready to go? He said it with an uncaring look on his face, like I just bothered him, and that all I was was a huge problem for every other passenger.
The flight attendant looked at him, and said, you do understand you’re talking to a marine/veteran don’t you? He said, right now, I could care less, because I have a plane to fly and people to get places. We have been held up already for 30 minutes. That’s when I knew it really did not matter who I was!
As I sat there, Larry said, we should just get off the plane, and get out of here. I told him I was thinking about it, but that I just could not do that. Even though that pilot could care less who I was, I could not let my veterans down like I was just let down.
So as we were headed to Jacksonville, Florida, all I could think about was to make sure this never happened to another person with a disability.
I had no idea my trip was about to get unbelievably worse. Before we landed in Jacksonville, I made sure that I called ahead. Thanks to my director, and PVA, they had a Permobil representative who would be there to help me fix my chair.
Before any of that could happen, however, I had to change planes in Atlanta where things went from bad to extremely worse for me and Larry.
I’m thinking maybe someone besides the airline would give me some help. Thankfully, James Reynolds, a Permobile representative, would be there at the airport to help me with my chair.
Before that could take place, however, Delta Airlines was not through with me and Larry. We were now in Atlanta, and I had a connecting flight in 45 minutes, a lot to do, and not much time to do it in.
As I sat on that plane, Larry went down to find out what happened to my chair. I sat there not knowing anything for at least 30 minutes.
Very frustrated, I could see out the window of the plane as my chair, or parts of it, were coming off. What I could not see was where was everyone at?
Finally, a bunch of people came on the plane. I saw that there were two women in red coats, four police officers, and one TSA agent all looking at me. Larry was next to them.
I couldn’t make this up if I tried. The woman sat down next to me, and proceeded to tell me that Larry got upset with her on the tarmac and that simply could not happen.
She wanted to inform me that she had to call the police because he was upset about my chair, and he had disrespected her because he spoke loud and walked off. He was coming to tell me the disaster that my chair was in but I guess you cannot do that.
I said to her very professionally, and respectfully, could you not understand that he is my caregiver and that maybe he got a little upset seeing the damage that was done to my wheelchair?
She told me that she really did not care and that she was the authority on the tarmac, and basically he had hurt her feelings. I explained to her that I had a connection to get to in less than 15 minutes could we please get past this so I could get to my flight?
No one is going on the tarmac right now until we get this straightened out, those were her words. I asked her, “mam,” what is there to straighten out?
The TSA agent said that he needed to speak to Larry, and they would get me off the plane while he was doing that. I was loaded onto an aisle chair once again being pulled and tugged around like a piece of meat.
They pushed me up into the terminal where I sat on that aisle chair for at least another 30 minutes. I explained to the people who were around me that I cannot sit like that for too long and asked them to please find something out.
I explained to them I am a quadriplegic and I am sitting on this hard aisle chair. I have been on a plane for an hour flight, another 30 minutes waiting for people to tell me what’s going on, and another 30 minutes sitting in this terminal.
Having no knowledge of where my wheelchair was, no knowledge of where my baggage was, and no idea whatsoever if I have missed my connecting flight or if it was being held or why I was still waiting.
All of this while they are still chastising my caregiver for what reason I have no idea. Larry must have told them that I could not sit on a hard surface that long, because they had come out finally and said we are going to get you off that thing before they disappeared again.
They appeared again, and said that if it was not for you your caregiver would be going to jail today so he is very lucky. I asked him going to jail for what? Because he got upset that my chair was destroyed and now I have no way to get around?
He walked away, and never came back. Evidently, I am now heading towards my connecting flight. Amazingly enough, they have held this up for a little over an hour and I am now being pushed in this aisle chair all the way through the entire airport.
As I was heading there, I could only think of how much pain that I was in, and I was hoping to God that I did not have any pressure sores or anything else from sitting that long.
It seemed like forever getting to that connecting flight in an aisle chair believe it or not. Their own staff could not believe what they were seeing and what was happening to me.
I was loaded on the plane bruised, and battered and all I can remember was the pilot coming up to me saying we have held this plane for over an hour for you. I looked at Larry and I thought he was going to punch him. I told him to just leave it alone and let’s get to Jacksonville.
We arrived in Jacksonville, and I will never forget the look on those peoples faces like I had done something to them. I will never forget that!
All I cared about was knowing that James was there from Permobil, and there was going to be some kind of way that I could get into my regular wheelchair because I did not know if he could fix it or not.
Thankfully, he was able to put it back together after another 30-45 minutes sitting again in that aisle chair. It is still not very comfortable. Thanks to my organization, PVA, and Permobil they were able to help me, and get me through my convention.
Can you imagine in just five short days I would have to do this all over again to get home? I am very fortunate to be a part of PVA. They managed to get me on a first-class flight, because quite honestly I do not know if I could’ve done that trip again the other way.
I will say this the flight home was much easier thanks to the two pilots who flew the plane. They came down and they made sure my chair was safe and not destroyed again.
They also made sure that my other two veterans along with myself were handled with care and well respected. They honored our service all the way home, and that was not a Delta decision that was two decent men who respected veterans.
Delta Airlines left me with a banged up knee, a pressure sore, and joint pain that I am still dealing with over the last week and a half. What did I receive as compensation, or an apology?
I received a call from a Delta representative named Donna, she gave me the courtesy of listening to my story. I guess that was my compensation.
Even on the last leg of my journey Delta Airlines left me with one lasting memory. They managed to cut a couple of wires on my cushion that I will have to pay for along with other repairs out of my pocket for the luxury of flying their airline.
It is not only my responsibility to write this story, but it is my duty to my fellow veterans and my community of disabled people. They would only like the same dignity and respect to fly like every other person, and not to feel like a burden to society.
I will not give up on my story, and I will make sure every news agency, every Congressman and Senator, and the Governor in my state understands that I am looking for accountability, and understanding that human beings are not to be belittled, or made to feel like they are less because of their mobility issues.
Again, I want to thank PVA, Permobil, and my caregiver, Larry Grimes, for fighting for me, and every other veteran or disabled person out there that deserves the same respect, and dignity to travel like everyone else!
So many of you out there have a story. If we don’t tell our stories no one else will. The only way that we can create change, or make a difference is by our stories.
Our veterans are counting on us. Our disabled community is counting on us! Thank you for reading, and pass this on!Mr. Kevin Sparks, IN