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Friday, August 27, 2010

Business Discrimination Worries: Easy Jet

Any person knows domestic air travel is a routinely miserable experience. Cash strapped airlines fly older planes packed to capacity. Flight crews and ground personal are woefully under staffed and subject to intense pressure to adhere to increasingly strict deadlines. Passengers do not help the situation. Many people try to carry on inappropriately large luggage and slow down the tedious boarding process. Tension is the norm as is rude behavior on the part of passengers and employees. Into this mix enters a person that uses a wheelchair and the result is increased misery. When my fellow passengers see me and my wheelchair some openly groan, become angry, annoyed, or worried their flight will be delayed by my presence. In short, they are worried about themselves and their schedule. Airline personnel have a similar reaction: they do not perceive me as a human being and paying customer but extra work that could theoretically delay a flight and get them in trouble. As a seasoned traveler, I do my best to assert my rights as outlined in the Air Carrier Access Act passed in 1990 in a polite and dignified manner. I try to keep my wits about me knowing travel was much harder and in some cases impossible before the law was on my side. In addition I remind myself the commercial airline industry has a long history of actively and aggressively discriminating against passengers with disabilities. These sorts of thoughts keep me calm when confronted with airline employees that are obstructive, unhelpful, and demeaning.

When I travel by plane I know I am entering a hostile environment. When I leave for the airport I feel as though I am getting ready for battle. I know, however, that the battle is one that I will win. Sure I may be treated poorly but I know I will be able to get from point A to point B. The Department of Transportation and the Air Carrier Access insures I will be able to get on and off a plane and navigate the airline terminal. None of this will be easy but it gets done. The fact is the ACA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. All air carriers are required by law to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. For instance, carriers cannot refuse to transport people on the basis of a disability assuming they do not present a flight safety risk. If a carrier believes a person with a disability represents such a risk they must provide a written explanation. Airlines cannot require advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling (they can require 48 hours notice if a passenger needs a respirator hook up). Carriers cannot limit the number of passengers with a disability. Carriers cannot require a person with a disability to travel with an attendant. These are the highlights of a complex and poorly understood law, one that is not followed in my opinion by airlines. In spite of its flaws, I consider the law essential to my right to fly. I am however worried. In Europe discount airlines have come up with a creative way to discriminate against people with disabilities. Here I refer to those that travel with power wheelchairs.

For those unfamiliar with power wheelchairs, these wheelchairs can be beasts as in they are very heavy. They are also astronomically expensive, in many cases custom designed for the user and as a result singularly unusual. A replacement chair could take many months to manufacture. These wheelchairs are complex pieces of technology that make an independent life possible for a person with a disability. They are not designed to be taken apart and put back together again. Yet this is exactly what some discount European airlines such as Easy Jet expect passengers to do. European discount airlines are using a trick as old as the hills to discriminate against people with disabilities that use power wheelchairs: health and safety. This is an instant red flag in the history of disability discrimination--once people start talking about health and safety people with a disability are screwed. Whose safety is Easy Jet trying to protect? I love this new twist--not the passengers with a disability but baggage handlers. According to Easy Jet no power wheelchair above 60kg can be accommodated unless it breaks up into pieces that weight less than 60kg. Some power wheelchairs can weigh twice as much. No power wheelchair I am aware of is designed to be broken down into separate pieces. Hence Easy Jet has targeted a specific population of people, those that use power wheelchairs, and are actively trying to keep them from flying. People with disabilities that use power wheelchairs have been denied boarding by Easy Jet. This worries me--will other European airlines follow Easy Jet's lead? To date, big carriers such as British Airways and Virgin have no weight restrictions for power wheelchairs. Yet I cannot help but wonder will some discount American based airline try to enact similar policies Easy Jet has enacted? Given the discriminatory history of American based carriers against people with disabilities it would not surprise me.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Image Problem: the ADA and Business

In recent weeks I have read quite a few articles about the ADA that can only be deemed harmful. By harmful, I mean they are poorly researched, grossly wrong and anti ADA. The articles in question have appeared in mainstream newspapers and magazines that reach a national audience. I need not identify the articles in question as the larger issue that emerges from them as a collective is straight-forward: the ADA is bad and hurts large and small businesses. While the intent of the law is good, inclusion as a sort of philanthropic generosity, some pesky and cripples are using the ADA to line their own pockets with money via lawsuits. One article I read went as far as to suggest the ADA has done more harm than good. What makes these articles so dangerous is there is an ounce of truth as opposed to a pound of bull shit.

Let me set some facts clear: the ADA was a hopelessly compromised piece of legislation when it was passed into law. The Supreme Court spent more than a decade reducing its effectiveness and hopelessly confusing the general public as to who was and was not disabled. In spite of its profound flaws, the ADA and disability rights leaders have used the law to the best of their ability. But disability rights leaders are far from a united front--indeed I would contend they are hopelessly splintered. Worse yet the ADA has not in any way dramatically changed how Americans perceives disability in general or people with disabilities in particular. Discrimination is as rampant today as it was the day the ADA was passed. What has changed is the sort of discrimination people with disabilities encounter. Today there is a willful ignorance as it relates to disability rights. The average person unfamiliar with disability does not think of disability as being about civil rights and even if this thought crossed their mind there is the hazy knowledge a law was passed a long time ago that solved the problem.

When the ADA was passed hysterical claims about costs involved in making businesses accessible abounded. These fears turned out to be just that--baseless fears. No data past or present indicates the ADA is costly or hurts business large or small. In spite of this fact mainstream media outlets highlight stories that indicate otherwise. These stories abound. Look at any newspaper and one can read about business owner that "fear the ADA". Some businesses and cities "could be devastated" by the law. In short, the ADA is equated with financial ruin. This places the person with a disability willing to file a complaint under the ADA as the bad guy from the start. What is conveniently ignored is the ADA is very clear about what accessibility entails. The law in my experience is often ignored and business owners are content with slapping up a blue wheelchair logo and declaring themselves accessible. This is not reality. Reality is access is good not just for people with disabilities but countless others as well. Compliance is in the best interest of business owners. This line of reasoning never appears in press. In it place newspapers report about people with a disability who file multiple lawsuits in an effort to "shake down business owners." Lawyers of course are also profiting from this attack on business. Are some suits frivolous? Of course. However, every day I go out my door I come across businesses that are not accessible in spite of law. I park in parking lots that have curb cuts located in the wrong place or simply don't exist. I order cold cuts from delis that are in violation of the ADA each and every week. The fact is I could spend the rest of my life suing businesses over flagrant violations of the law. I do not do this because I perceive such an effort to be fruitless. What is needed is not a change in the law but the cultural demand for the law to be enforced. We need outrage, social outrage that all businesses and schools are not accessible. We need all people to demand the country be made accessible. I doubt I will ever see this take place but I can dream--and the ADA is but one measure of protection for my civil rights. It does not matter that the law is flawed for I know the law is on my side. This is not enough for real social change but at least it is a start.