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Disability activist Engracia Figueroa tragically passed away on Oct. 31 after suffering complications from injuries she sustained after her custom wheelchair was reportedly destroyed by United Airlines.

Figueroa, who worked with an organization called Hand in Hand championing for domestic workers rights, was traveling back from Washington D.C. with her friend Christine Lang, following their speech at the Can’t-Wait rally in support of home care system rights, the organization’s website said. Figueroa was shocked to discover that United Airlines had completely destroyed her $30,000 custom wheelchair while going through cargo, leaving her no choice but to use a traditional wheelchair while onboard the 5-hour long ride. “Her struggle to maintain her balance over that length of time in the faulty device led to the development of a pressure sore,” Hand in Hand wrote in a statement about the incident. “When she was finally able to return home, she experienced acute pain, and was admitted to the hospital shortly after.”

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Figueroa’s wheelchair was designed to support her “spinal cord injury and left leg amputation.”The mobility device was considered critical to her independence and to maintaining her health,” the organization noted.  United Airlines initially refused to replace the passionate activist’s wheelchair following the incident claiming that it could be repaired, but Figueroa continued to fight for the company to take accountability. Eventually, United Airlines agreed to fully replace Figueroa’s chair, but unfortunately during her legal battle, the Los Angeles native was forced to use a loaner chair that did not meet the needs of her disabilities. It further exacerbated her pressure sore, causing it to become infected. Figueroa died following complications from emergency surgery.

“Mobility devices are an extension of our bodies. When they are damaged or destroyed, we become re-disabled. Until the airlines learn how to treat our devices with the care and respect they deserve, flying remains inaccessible,” Figueroa said in a number of interviews, Newsweek reported.

The domestic rights advocate was a member of Hand in Hand’s California chapter and was also the President of the Board of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free organization. According to Hand in Hand’s statement, Figueroa was a” joyful, fierce” and “creative leader.”

Madelaine Reis, a fellow activist, and friend of Figueroa told USA TODAY that she was gearing up to launch a campaign alongside the fiery activist to spread awareness about airlines damaging wheelchairs shortly before her passing. In her work and conferences, Figueroa highlighted the dangers of irreparably damaging wheelchairs. Reis plans to continue Figueroa’s efforts.

United Airlines issued a statement to USA Today following her passing that read:

“We were saddened to hear about Ms. Figueroa’s passing and we offer our condolences to her friends and family.”


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