Airport Wheelchair Abuse Hurts the Truly Disabled

Anecdotal evidence shows more people are taking advantage of the system.

May 16, 2013— -- Off the heels of a report that the uber-wealthy hire disabled tour guides to cut the lines at a famous Florida theme park comes another story about able-bodied people gaming a system set up for people with limited mobility.

ABC Houston affiliate KTRK reported an increase in the number of wheelchair requests at Houston-area airports. An airport manager was quoted as telling the station, "We've handled maybe a hundred wheelchairs a year. Now there are some certain times we can handle a hundred wheelchairs in a day."

American Airlines told ABC News that while they haven't seen a noticable uptick in wheelchair requests in Houston, the number of requests at New York's John F. Kennedy airport -- now about 600 per day -- has increased recently.

Anecdotal evidence from frequent fliers and advocates for people with disabilities suggests more people are taking advantage of the system. CEO of and frequent flier Rick Seaney said he's seen an increase in the number of wheelchairs at the airport.

"I would put it on par with a variety of issues like abusing handicap status for parking, disability," he said. "There are always going to be a few that game the system potentially ruining it for the truly needy."

And that's really the heart of the matter: Not whether an able-bodied person has to wait a little longer in a security line at the airport for a person with a wheelchair to go ahead of them, but the fact that people who abuse the system limit resources for people who actually need them. What's worse, there's the potential that abuse of the system could become so rampant that lawmakers may actually dial back accommodations overall, hurting the people who actually need them.

"We've tried to be very careful about disability policy rights with lawmakers and have tried to find a balance," said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. "There should be reasonable service provided to people with disabilities so they can participate in society, but those services shouldn't be a burden to the rest of the community.

"When the system is exploited it raises questions about how services should be restricted [for people who truly need them]."

Travelers request wheelchair services and other special accommodations directly from the airline. For example, the American Airlines web site has several pages dedicated assisting to travelers who need special accommodation. But there's no one-size-fits-all policy, which leaves room for people inclined to take advantage to do just that.

"Every person with a challenge or disability is different, and you are the best judge of the service you require," the website reads.

Decker said the airlines don't want to get too deep into their customer's personal lives, which may prevent them from asking probing questions regarding the person's claims about a disability. Plus, "there are a lot of hidden disabilities, sometimes you just don't know."

In other words, don't assume the person in the wheelchair cutting the security line doesn't truly need the assistance, even if they look perfectly capable to stand in line like everyone else.

But if you're tempted to game the system, keep in mind it's not a victimless crime. "If people who don't need the services use them, they take up resources and people who actually do need them won't have them available," said Decker.

"Whenever I'm at the airport I see airline personnel scrambling to find wheelchairs for all the people who need them. Especially on the flights to Florida."