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Friday, April 22, 2016
In the last few months multiple news stories have appeared detailing how badly people with a disability are treated by airlines. The story that garnered the most media attention concerned D’Arcee Neal. After waiting well over an hour for his wheelchair, Neal decided to crawl off a plane. I know the situation Mr. Neal found himself in all too well. A cross-country flight, an urgent need to use the restroom and no one in sight. Assurances help is on the way rings hollow after a long flight and extended wait. Like Neal, I too have crawled off an airplane. In fact every person I know with a disability who can crawl and transfer from floor to wheelchair has done the same. Those that travel often are astute enough to realize those tasked with assisting us on and off a plane are simply not going to appear. This happens every day. It happens in large international airports. It happens in small regional airports. It is commonplace. No one bats an eye. Welcome to the routine denigration of people with a disability at the hands of airlines worldwide.
What surprised me about Mr. Neal’s experience was its news worthiness. Anyone with a significant disability knows that all airlines are hostile to their existence. Service is painfully slow and incompetence abounds. In the post 9/11 era all travelers know flying is a miserable experience. What typical travelers do not realize is that flying for passengers such as myself who uses a wheelchair, travel related services are substantially worse. I have been prompted to write about airline discrimination because yet another story of discrimination has taken place. The story originates in Toronto. Louise Kinross wrote about a family stranded at the airport because their child with a disability was not allowed to board an international flight. Link: http://bloom-parentingkidswithdisabilities.blogspot.ca/2016/04/flight-ban-is-discriminatory-says.html?m=1
I doubt this story will go viral. In fact the only media attention it garnered appeared in City News (none of the major news outlets in Toronto picked up the story). Link: http://www.citynews.ca/2016/04/21/family-denied-cathay-pacific-flight-due-to-sons-chair-for-disability/
This story resonates with me because it indicates how random and unpredictable air travel can be. It is simply impossible to know what will take place when I enter an airport and try to board a plane. I have encountered flight crews that were polite and respectful. I have experienced the exact opposite far more often—flight crews can be openly rude, condescending, and make it very clear my existence is an overwhelming burden. I have met great gate agents on departure and arrival--this is not the norm. Gate agents and those tasked to get me on and off a plane are typically rushed and I represent one thing—unwanted labor. From the moment one arrives at any given airport a gauntlet of abuse is commonplace. TSA officers can be aggressive and far too hands on. Many roll their eyes when directed to give me a “pat down”. It is obvious they detest the idea of touching my body. I have even been asked if I am contagious. More than once a TSA employee has demanded to cut open my expensive Roho wheelchair cushion. If I refuse the TSA agents will not let me pass through security. Apparently, in 2015 the TSA deemed air nozzles a security risk. In 2016 a nozzle is not longer a risk. The point here is all the planning in the world is useless. Whatever reassurances one is given verbally or in writing prior to travel are meaningless upon arrival.
The word that comes to mind is arbitrary. Kara Melissa Sharp and her family went to Toronto’s Pearson airport excited and happy. They were going to Hong Kong. Upon booking their tickets months ago, the Sharp’s informed the airline, Cathay Pacific, their son Sebastian had a disability and could only travel if he sat in a Convaid seat. The airline confirmed the seat was permitted on board. When the Sharp family got to the gate they were informed Sebastian could not board the plane. At issue was Sebastian’s age. He is seven years old. The airline considered Sebastian’s Convaid seat a “car seat.” The airline does not permit car seats on board for children over the age of 36 months. The fact Sebastian is the size and weight of a much younger child meant nothing. The fact the Sharps have flown before with the Convaid seat meant nothing. The Sharp’s were informed four accessible seating devices could be provided to people with a disability. These devices were not available and would take upper management approval to access and would have to be flown in from Hong Kong—a 15 hour flight. None of the four seating options met Sebastian’s needs.
The Sharp’s obviously could not endanger their son’s life on a long flight. They were forced to leave the airport without knowing how or if they could travel. The Sharp’s experience illustrates not only disability based discrimination but that when people with a disability travel we put or bodies at risk. The job of assisting people with a disability on and off a plane has been farmed out to the lowest bidder by airlines. Employees are poorly trained and paid below minimum wage because the job is considered tip-based work. Many of the employees tasked to assist people with a disability on and off the plane have no idea what to do. Communication is typically difficult because a language barrier exists. The barrier here is employees have no working vocabulary such as aisle chair, wheelchair, strap, lift and so forth. Rarely if ever are FAA regulations followed when I use an aisle chair as is my norm getting on and off a plane. Many supposedly trained employees I have encountered did not know the difference between my wheelchair and an aisle chair. The Sharp’s experience did not surprise me one iota. Horror stories abound. Every major American airline has been sued for violating the Air Carrier Access Act. Penalties levied by the FAA are woefully inadequate. The number of complaints is staggering and in my opinion we are not asking the right questions. For example, the Sharps were told four existing alternatives exist yet none were in the airport. In fact the five point harness was in Hong Kong. In the City News article Sharp stated “I don’t know why it’s not on every plane. It could help other kids that are disabled. We don’t this to happen again with some one else. We feel it shouldn’t be hard for people with disabilities to travel.” I agree it should not be hard to travel for people with disabilities but hard it is--exceptionally hard. I for one have instituted the 600 mile rule. I do not consider flying to be an option unless I am traveling more than 600 miles. The hassles associated with airline travel and risk to my body is not worth it.
So what can be done to change an industry hostile to people with a disability. Airlines and travel writers suggest additional training can solve the problem people with a disability encounter. I am skeptical improved training will prompt change. More training only goes so far. Stephen Kuusisto stated:
Even if a large airline such as United or American offers training to its staff, it’s not enough, because the companies are subcontracting to regional airlines who may not train staff effectively when it comes to disability. There’s still a deep belief in our society that it’s someone else’s job to handle the disabled, so if there isn’t sufficient training to help counter that, you are going to get employees who don’t really understand that everyone needs to be treated equally.
Any solution is going to take decades and will require drastic changes. No doubt the airline industry will fight aggressively against any substantive change. Revenue reigns supreme in an industry with razor thin profit margins. A number of suggestions have been made which if enacted upon would greatly improve access to air travel for people with disabilities. An online petition by Vicki Jurney-Taylor requesting that the FAA require wheelchair restraint systems in every commercial aircraft has nearly 33,000 signatures. Link:
If buses and trains are required by law to have accessible vehicles, why should the airline industry be held to a lower standard?
I am sure of only one thing: the airline industry will only change if it is forced to. Disability based bias is deeply ingrained in the airline industry. The Sharp family experience is commonplace. I find this frustrating in the extreme. Like many that travel, I know good people work in the airline industry. On rare occasions I have had airline personnel be truly kind to me. I vividly recall being in Denver when an airline employee tapped me on the shoulder and asked me where I was going. I told her I was on the first leg of a long trip. She asked me to follow her and we walked to a nearby kiosk. She told me “I know you guys get screwed all the time. My brother is a paraplegic. There is no good reason the airlines cannot treat you with respect”. As she spoke she was tapping commands into a keyboard and out popped new tickets. She told me “I upgraded you to first class for the rest of your trip. Good luck and I am sorry for the way you are treated”.
The airline industry is capable of providing good service to passengers with disabilities. For me, a good place to start would be to place great value on devices people with a disability utilize. Last year American Airlines lost Adrianne Haslet-Davis prosthesis (she survived the Boston Bombings). A prosthesis is not typical luggage—it is in fact an extension of a human being just as my wheelchair is an extension of who I am. Place a high priority on such valuable cargo. The value here is not limited to a monetary amount. If my wheelchair is broken, my life comes to a sudden and jarring stop. It cannot be replaced in a way that would not cause massive havoc. This is especially true for those who use a power chair. Power chairs are extremely expensive—some cost as much as a car. Imagine what one would feel if they saw their empowering piece of technology going up a luggage conveyer belt on its side as the power control gets mangled. If an airline really wants to separate itself and demonstrate they value passengers with a disability create a dedicated storage compartment for all manner of adaptive gear. Wheelchairs, scooters, power chairs, walkers, and all other durable medical goods should be treated with great care. Better yet, have employees who are responsible for stowing adaptive devices like wheelchairs wear a go pro camera. My anxiety level would be virtually eliminated if I saw my wheelchair treated with care and respect. This sort of service need not be limited to wheelchair users. Musicians I am sure would be thrilled to observe their instruments be securely stowed. The same can be said about any traveler stowing an item of significant value. And this merely highlights an unappreciated fact—disability is the king or queen of intersectionality. What benefits we people with a disability benefits all people.