Allison Wallis: Want To File A Disability Rights Complaint? It's Complicated - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Allison Wallis

Allison Wallis is a journalist based on the North Shore of Oahu where she lives with her husband and daughter. She's a graduate student at the Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University. She writes about disability, chronic health conditions, chronic pain, Judaism, and life in Hawaii. The author's opinions are her own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach her at

There’s a lack of awareness about the rights of disabled people.

When I got my first wheelchair, the occupational therapist told me never to fly with it.

Instead, I should use a “beater chair.” Since this chair was my first (and cost around $7,000) I didn’t have an older one at home.

“The airlines will destroy it,” she said. “I wouldn’t risk it.” 

I didn’t have a choice. I made multiple flights over four years, mainly to California, for medical care, and each time I was scared the airline would damage or destroy my chair.

Recently, my luck ran out. On a flight to California for medical treatment, Hawaiian Airlines destroyed a wheel and bent the frame of my chair. It took hours of phone calls and stress for my husband to sort it out while I recuperated from my medical procedure. It still doesn’t work right. 

Then a few months later, an international airline didn’t put my wheelchair on a connecting flight. I got to my destination, and my chair didn’t. It felt like they took my legs away. Luckily, there was another flight going out later that day they could add my chair to, but it took time and energy my husband and I didn’t have to sort it out.

After hearing my stories, many people told me to file a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act and sue the airlines. Unfortunately, air travel in the U.S. isn’t covered under the ADA but under a separate regulation, the Air Carrier Access Act, and is managed by the federal Department of Transportation.

To make a very long story short, in 1986, after intense lobbying by airlines, Congress passed a separate disability rights law for air travelers. The Paralyzed Veterans of America site details what is and isn’t covered under the act.

One major issue is that individuals cannot sue airlines for disability discrimination. You have to report the incident to the DOT, which then starts a case and investigates it. The agency decides what repercussions (such as fines) the airlines can face.

Complicated Laws

The public seems to have a lack of knowledge about what rights disabled people are guaranteed by law and how they can get redress when those rights are violated.

It’s easy to understand why: Disability is generally a subject not discussed in school or outside certain circles like veterans, aging people and disabled people. And laws have been revised over the years.

I’ll never forget the day when a well-meaning person told me to “Just call the ADA, and they’ll sort it out.” I’d been venting my frustrations about Haleiwa’s lack of sidewalks and accessible parks, and my friend was just trying to be helpful.

But you can’t call the ADA. The ADA isn’t an agency. It’s a law that grants federal protections to disabled people in the U.S. 

Elderly Couple on wheelchairs wait for the family members to feed the meter near Halekauwila street.
People with disabilities face a complicated path in trying to get recourse when their rights are violated. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

To help make sense of all of this and to learn about recent developments in the laws, I spoke with University of Hawaii law school professor Linda Hamilton Krieger. Krieger is a longtime civil rights and employment discrimination attorney and former chair of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission who grew up in Hawaii. 

The most well-known law that protects disabled U.S. residents is the ADA, which is intended to protect people against discrimination in employment, federally funded services like the Handi-Van, and public accommodations like swimming pools, Ubers and the mall.

There are also other laws and regulations. The first significant legislation to protect disabled residents was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Its most well-known provision is Section 504, which ensures that entities that receive federal funds don’t discriminate against disabled users. This includes beaches, parks, hospitals and public schools. Citizens were allowed to sue individual entities for damages, including emotional distress, and injunctive relief, like a court order that the covered entity install a ramp.

Supreme Court Case

But in the summer of 2022, just days before the court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court gutted the Rehab Act’s remedies, holding in a case called Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller that disabled people could no longer sue for emotional distress or punitive damages, only costs like out-of-pocket expenses.

The court left undecided whether disabled people could be entitled to attorneys’ fees or injunctive relief, but, the logic of its opinion suggests not. 

“The Supreme Court broke Section 504. It can’t be relied upon anymore,” Krieger told me. “Luckily, we have our own state statute that provides meaningful remedies for disability discrimination. We need to start using it.” 

While disability is not enshrined in our state constitution as a protected class, state law addresses it in Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 368-1.5. This law covers programs and activities that receive state funding.

“No otherwise qualified individual in the State shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination by state agencies, or under any program or activity receiving state financial assistance,” it states.

I spoke with a Maui resident who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and uses assistive devices like a wheelchair or motorized shopping cart who felt she was discriminated against by a large chain store. The store has a policy of not allowing shoppers to carry big shopping bags or backpacks, but she needed to bring a backpack that holds emergency medications among other necessary items.

Although she says one manager told her that was fine, the next time she tried to shop at the store, she was stopped by customer service and told she couldn’t bring her bag in. She protested, and the employee threatened to call the police. She eventually left the store and took a cellphone video of multiple people with large backpacks passing her on their way out. 

The Maui woman complained to the Civil Rights Commission, which declined to take her case. Instead, the commission gave her approval to pursue a claim on her own. After unsuccessfully searching for a local lawyer, she filed an ADA lawsuit herself. While prohibited from discussing the results, she told me the entire process was incredibly stressful. 

Krieger said Hawaii needs to develop its own disability civil rights laws and stop relying on federal laws, especially since the federal protections have recently been weakened.

The UH law professor would like to see a grassroots movement to push our legislators into action because without it “our citizens are plumb out of luck.”

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About the Author

Allison Wallis

Allison Wallis is a journalist based on the North Shore of Oahu where she lives with her husband and daughter. She's a graduate student at the Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University. She writes about disability, chronic health conditions, chronic pain, Judaism, and life in Hawaii. The author's opinions are her own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach her at

Latest Comments (0)

Agree with you that airline baggage handlers, with the exception of Japan, are not the most cautious or caring. I've had boards, paddles and other items destroyed in transit. It usually is a hassle getting things straight, but I think that is across the board. Additionally, sidewalk access, or basic infrastructure and maintenance is a city wide issue for everyone and a systemic problem. With a $3.2B budget we should expect more, but the bar has been set so low, for so long that most people just accept it as the norm. A visit to most any other similar sized city in America reveals otherwise. Getting the Honolulu and its citizens to wake up is part of the problem.

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

All the state and federal laws don't do much good unless they are enforced.

MsW · 3 months ago

I kind of like the Fair Housing Act because it prohibits discrimination in housing and housing related transactions.I think Richardson needs to ask if a paraplegic bedridden socio-economically deprived person or someone with other disabilities could garner the merit criteria to gain admission, much less be able to graduate from Richardson Law. If they can answer that this is entirely possible then maybe we would be able to find more lawyers to fight in court for those who cannot defend themselves against discrimination.But, sure, a movement would be best, admittedly.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 3 months ago

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