Rear view of a man on wheelchair at airport with his luggage.

UK HDI researchers lay groundwork for national air travel accessibility research with focus on individuals who use wheelchairs 

In July 2021, Engracia Figueroa’s power wheelchair–a $30,000 custom device—was critically damaged in the belly of a commercial plane. After the flight, Figueroa was left to wait in a standard transport wheelchair at the airport for nearly five hours, noting her hunger and pain in live videos she posted to Facebook. 

 Figueroa, who was disabled following a train accident 30 years prior, was provided with a temporary and ill-fitting loaner wheelchair to use in the coming months, as United Airlines fought against the federally mandated responsibility to pay for full repairs or replacement. In Facebook videos, Figueroa described the incident as life ruining.  

In the wheelchair Figueroa was left to use, an old pressure ulcer opened, leading to an infection that spread through her body, ultimately causing her death just three months after her wheelchair had been destroyed due to improper cargo storage. 

Two researchers at the UK Human Development Institute (HDI), Dr. Walt Bower and Julie Pfeiffer, have been paying attention to stories like Figueroa’s, and they are now laying the groundwork for academic research on airline accessibility for individuals who use wheelchairs.  

“Please do not allow this to happen to anyone else again. Let’s get together and get these airlines to stop doing this to people with disabilities,” Figueroa wrote in a Facebook post following the initial incident.  

Revealing the prevalence of the issue, Bower and Pfeiffer note that disability-related complaints related to air travel have more than doubled in the past decade, yet little to no formal academic research has been conducted on the topic in the U.S.  

Pfeiffer, who came to HDI with this specific research interest, is a graduate research assistant with a background in physical therapy. She used to work with individuals who were new to using a wheelchair. One facility she worked in had a partnership with the local airport. Using a mock airplane setup, Pfeiffer helped her patients practice transfers from their wheelchairs to airplane seats. She educated her patients on how to navigate an airport in a wheelchair, passing along tips and tricks she had learned from other wheelchair users.  

“I continued to work with individuals who used wheelchairs and just started hearing a lot of stories from my patients about what it was like for them trying to travel–trying to fly on a plane, specifically–as a wheelchair user and having their wheelchair damaged, how they were treated by airline personnel, how they talked to them,” Pfeiffer said. 

Joe Cowan, a member of HDI’s Consumer Advisory Council, loves to travel for conferences and events. His favorite place he’s traveled to is Florida.  

“It was just the atmosphere, you know? It was just nice,” he said. 

Cowan hopes the outcome of Bower’s and Pfeiffer’s research will lead to better training for airport staff. He sees lack of training and awareness by airline staff as the biggest reason individuals who use wheelchairs run into so many problems in the airport. 

In a recent travel experience, Cowan was told his wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the belly of the plane, and he would likely need to take a different flight. 

“That didn’t sit well with me,” Cowan said. “That should not happen. They should be able to transport me and my chair. Just because I have a disability, they shouldn’t say, you know, you have to use a special plane, or you have to do this. If I pay my money and come to the gate… my chair should be able to come along as well.” 

Though the airline did eventually fit his wheelchair onto the plane, it sustained damage to its right armrest in flight.  

According to Cowan, some individuals who use custom wheelchairs might use backup wheelchairs that are not as comfortable or suitable for regular use, anticipating the damage the wheelchair will receive in air travel. Cowan says some of his friends who use wheelchairs choose not to take part in air travel at all due to the issue. 

Bower, preservice training coordinator at HDI, points out that the current air travel experience stands in conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

“ADA asserts disability is a natural part of the human experience. That does not diminish a person’s right to participate in all aspects of life, including transportation and air travel,” he says. 

Bower says that federal legislation has existed to improve accessibility during air travel for over 30 years, yet disability-related complaints continue to increase, rising from about 14,000 to 37,000 annual complaints from 2009-2019. 

Bower and Pfeiffer both pointed out that there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence to support their efforts. Social media holds countless stories of damaged wheelchairs and accounts of discrimination against travelers who use them, yet there is a stark lack of academic research to drive policy change. 

Bower and Pfeiffer are interviewing individuals who use wheelchairs to gain insight into their experiences. They will collect and document experiences and perceptions on what needs to change to make the air travel process more accessible. 

For questions about this research, please contact

Tina Lindon staff photo. She is wearing a colorful chevron blouse and necklace. She is standing in front of trees and smiling at the camera.

Tina Lindon receives the 2022 Jacki Shouse Service Award

Tina Lindon, Staff Assistant for the University of Kentucky (UK) Human Development Institute has been selected to receive the 2022 Jacki Shouse Service Award. Tina has served the University for 37 years and worked with Jacki for many of those years.

This award is given to an HDI staff member who demonstrates excellent job performance through their contributions to increase efficiency, provision of high-quality customer service, increased cost savings, or enhanced daily operations. The candidate must be responsive, respectful, and work collaboratively with others.

Tina is kind, dependable, hardworking, and has impacted nearly all HDI’s projects. She is responsive and prompt in completing tasks, and always willing to assist with any project with whatever task is needed.  Much like Jacki, she has taken on more responsibilities in her workload, always willing to learn new skills and processes. Her commitment to HDI has been consistent and sustained.  

One nomination noted how she communicates often, asks questions to clarify what is needed, follows up to tell me the task is done, and always takes a moment to ask how they are doing and share something personal to remind them that our relationships with each other are what matters most.

Jacki Shouse began working at UK in March of 1990. She accepted her first position with the Human Development Institute in February of 1998, where she spent the next 19 years until her retirement. Although we miss her greatly, giving this annual award gives us an opportunity to reflect on what she meant to HDI.

Congratulations, Tina! 

Hispanic Heritage Month written in yellow, orange, and white on a navy blue background with colorful triangles as a border

HDI celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month

17 October, 2022 | Written by Delaney Wickert

Upon the conclusion of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15th—October 15th), the Human Development Institute would like to recognize and share the achievements and presence of Hispanic and Latinx Americans.

The United States is home to more than 5 million Hispanic or Latinx Americans that have a disability ( Through Hispanic Heritage Month, it is important to recognize challenges faced by Latinx with disabilities.

Alejandra Tristan is a First Generation American who shares her experience with her physical disability in a multicultural household. In Alejandra’s article “Becoming Proud of My Disabled Identity as a First-Generation American”, she describes the challenges she faced growing up as she was taught to be prideful of being a part of both the Mexican and American communities, but had to learn how to be proud of being a part of the disabled community. She describes that not only did she have to educate herself on her disability in one language, but two languages in order to communicate and express her needs to family and friends in both Spanish and English.

Using the same elements of pride and advocacy she holds in being Latinx American, Alejandra learned to communicate her needs and advocate herself while taking pride in being a person with a disability. Alejandra was able to show its possible to navigate being a person with a disability while embracing her multicultural roots by breaking through barriers, like dancing at her Quinceañera with a physical disability. Alejandra advocates for the disabled community in both languages she speaks, and works to advocate and break the negative stigma regarding the term “disabled.”

To learn more about Hispanic Heritage Month, visit:

To learn more about Latinx people with disabilities, visit:

Works Cited

Congress, T. L. of, Administration, N. A. and R., Humanities, N. E. for the, Art, N. G. of, Service, N. P., Institution, U. S. S., & Museum, U. S. H. M. (n.d.). National Hispanic American Heritage month 2022. National Hispanic American Heritage Month 2022. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from

Santo, S. (2020, September 26). Highlighting latinx people with disabilities in honor of Hispanic Heritage month. Respect Ability. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from

Tristan, A. (2021, September 20). Becoming proud of my disabled identity as a first-generation American. Respect Ability. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from

LEND Trainee Spotlight: Julie Caudill-Clark. She has long, ginger hair tied back and bright, green eyes. She is wearing a navy floral top and headphones, smiling for the photograph.

KYLEND Trainee Spotlight: Julie Caudill-Clark

Julie Caudill-Clark, a doctoral student in Eastern Kentucky University’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program, is a current LEND Trainee. Her current studies focus on Special Education and she is completing requirements to become a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She also holds a master’s degree from Roosevelt University in Teacher Leadership and Special Education. 

In her teaching positions, she has taught children with Autism at the middle and high school levels, earning her an Illinois Highly Qualified Certification in Secondary Education for grades 6-12 in English, Math, Social Sciences, and Special Education. She also holds a Kentucky Teaching Certification for these areas and is certified in ages 3-21 as a Special Education Teacher. 

Currently serving as Director of Disability Services and Testing for Hazard Community and Technical College, she supports all students with disabilities at all campuses. She determines accommodations students can use in classrooms. 

Also serving as Chair for the Disability Services Workgroup for Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), she works with other Disability Service Providers to develop the Disability Services Handbook. Additionally, her and her team facilitate training and materials for Faculty and Staff guiding support provided to all students.

Julie serves on the Board for Kentucky AHEAD as the Chair for Membership. This organization provides training, networking and support to other Disability Service Professionals at the college level and allows us to improve services provided at Kentucky colleges and universities. 

Julie hopes to expand her knowledge and abilities while continuing work in Kentucky!

Julie is currently enrolled as a trainee in the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute’s (HDI) Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program. LEND is a five-year grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration Maternal and Child Health Bureau in partnership with the University of Louisville and Eastern Kentucky University. 

These programs share the overall mission of improving the health of infants, children, and adolescents with autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities. LEND aims to increase the number of professionals with the knowledge and skills to provide evidence-based screening and diagnosis, as well as support to individuals and families.

Visit to learn more. Contact the Kentucky LEND Project Director with any questions or to schedule an informational session for your department and interested students!

Woman getting a bandage after shot

Southeast SuperHub Champions working to increase vaccine confidence 

Led by the Human Development Institute in partnership with Georgia State University, a coalition of advocates and community partners have taken on the important task of promoting vaccine confidence in the Southeast US. The COVID-19 Vaccine Information and Dissemination SuperHub for the Southeast region was organized with the goal to Increase vaccine access and uptake among the disability population in southeast region. As new variants of COVID-19 emerge, continuing the vaccine conversation is more important than ever.  

Barriers to vaccine uptake include hesitancy and access. Organizers of the Southeast SuperHub determined that members of the disability community can be the catalyst to increase the rate of vaccination among disabled people. Local Trusted Champions are in their communities discussing vaccine resources with those in their immediate circles in person and online. They are assisting with vaccine outreach and the dissemination of plain language resources developed by the Human Development Institute and Georgia State University. By having one-on-one conversations, Champions are helping to quell fears of the vaccine and answer questions with a personal approach. They are leveraging their status as trusted members of their communities to tailor the messaging to a local context.  

Champions are also breaking down barriers in vaccine access. The plain language resources disseminated by Local Trusted Champions are available in multiple languages, which are important as many members of the disability do not speak English as their first language. Additionally, champions have identified ways in which vaccine sites may not be accessible to wheelchair users, those who are deaf and hard of hearing, or who have limited vision.  

Local Trusted Champions are compensated for their efforts by a stipend and are asked to complete a Local Champion 101 training, as well as a course on Motivational Interviewing. They are also expected to track their data and report back to the SuperHub during monthly meetings. Recruitment of Local Champions is ongoing, and though the project will conclude on September 30, Champions’ efforts will make a lasting impact. 

For more information, contact