A group of nine friends from France set out July 4 on an almost month-long trip to the United States, hoping to show that travel can be accessible to anyone, including those with disabilities.
But their carefully planned trip hit an unexpected roadblock when one travel companion's CAD$54,500 custom wheelchair (EUR 37,000) was damaged so badly it couldn't be used.
Valentin Duthion has spinal muscular atrophy, and requires the use of his wheelchair to get around. When he and his friends boarded a United Airlines flight to New Jersey, they left his chair in the care of airline staff, as is normal procedure, according to the website Travel Pulse.
When they arrived, Duthion's 250-kilogram wheelchair was missing a wheel, while another was tilted. The user interface box had been broken off and the steering handle had been damaged.
A mechanic who took a look at the chair confirmed that it was beyond usable for Duthion's 27-day trip, according to French newspaper Le Progres.
United is paying to repair the chair and offered Duthion a different motorized wheelchair, which was not adapted for his particular needs.
In a statement to People, Airline officials confirmed they had provided a loaner wheelchair and upgraded the group's return flight.
But Duthion's sister Lucie told Le Progres the group was told if they did not accept United's wheelchair, they would have to sign a waiver saying they refused the airline's help.
"We had no choice but to accept this proposal after an ultimatum posed by the company," she said.
The group has been chronicling their adventures around the U.S. on YouTube and Facebook. Their posts show that during the group's first few days in New York City, the temporary motorized wheelchair broke down, forcing the group to push Duthion and and his wheelchair around the city.
This isn't the first time United Airlines has been criticized for its handling of wheelchairs and people with disabilities. In June, a Florida woman said she was suing the airline for injuries she sustained in September after staff dropped her. Her custom wheelchair was also damaged, although United paid for the repairs.
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