Disability rights activist, who shared her story about airline damaging her wheelchair, dies

Engracia Figueroa, a longtime activist who fought for disability rights, died on Sunday, October 31.

Engracia Figueroa, a longtime activist for people with disabilities, died on Sunday. 

Figueroa, 51, developed a skin ulcer that became infected and had gastrointestinal issues, according to Hand in Hand, a nonprofit organization of which she was a member. Engracia had been admitted into the intensive care unit two weeks earlier. 

Madelaine Reis, a fellow activist and friend of Figueroa, told USA TODAY that up until her last moments, Figueroa was "thinking of how to keep disability rights at the forefront."

Reis said she recently partnered with Figueroa to prepare a campaign to spread awareness about airlines damaging wheelchairs. Figueroa, who used a wheelchair, boarded a United Airlines flight on July 14 and, after landing, discovered her wheelchair had been damaged. 

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“It was like my worst nightmare came true. My wheelchair is custom-made for me and my spinal cord injury. It’s a $30,000 machine that is not easy to replace, and without it, I am now stuck at home," Figueroa said in a press release at the time. 

While United Airlines did provide Figueroa with a new wheelchair, Reis said Figueroa remained on a loaner wheelchair for months. 

"We were saddened to hear about Ms. Figueroa’s passing and we offer our condolences to her friends and family," United Airlines said in a statement to USA TODAY. 

Following her hospitalization, Reis said Figueroa was "scared and exhausted" as most activists fighting for their own rights are.

"She was kind of just exhausted that she's had to, like a lot of disability activists, they're advocating for their own rights and needs, so she was just tired but continued to fight," Reis said.

In her work and conferences, Figueroa highlighted the dangers of damaging wheelchairs. If a wheelchair is damaged, the person is "re-disabled," she said.

Figueroa 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, an independent living center in Los Angeles. Hand in Hand called her a "joyful, fierce, creative leader."

Hand in Hand and other activists like Reis hope to continue Figueroa's efforts and passions. 

"I would tell people to continue to fight ableism and understand the importance of disability rights. Wheelchairs are an extension of someone's body and disabled lives like hers matter," Reis said.

Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda