Flying beyond discrimination
By Lillian D’Costa
Airline companies must evolve an inclusive, disability friendly, non-discriminatory policy.
It is generally accepted that there are about 60-70 million persons with disabilities in the country, 12 million of these are believed to be visually impaired. The general citizenry in their ignorance about people with disabilities often dismiss them as inconsequential members of society. Yet most of us, who either live or work with people with disability, know that they live pretty normal lives even after all the “hurdles” we put up for them. Of special interest are people with visual impairment and the tremendous problems they face from sheer lack of policy and some would argue thoughtlessness.
Recently, a friend with visual impairment was detailing an incident of high handedness and the arbitrary policy of a prominent airline. The airline it seems prevented him from boarding a flight because it was their policy that a person with visual impairment be accompanied by an escort. My friend argued that like most other people with visual impairment, he had a job, he had a family, travelled frequently by trains and other public transport and if he was capable of all this why then did he need an escort when flying.
The airlines refuted, saying that in an emergency it would not be possible for the airline staff to give him individual assistance and he would be required to follow instructions for which they assumed he would need help. Anybody acquainted with persons with disabilities would immediately suggest that the way out would be to print instructions in Braille and give the person a few minutes orientation before boarding the flight. In an emergency any greater than that which calls for using basic safety equipment, not just a person with visual impairment but even the rest of the passengers would not be able to do much to save themselves.
But with the deep seated mentality of “exclusion” with which most of our facilities functions, it becomes easier for the airline company to propose a more expensive suggestion and thus prevent thousands of people from travelling. It was later learnt that the airlines had no policy for people with visual impairments and was actually following an International Air Transport Association recommendation!
Today, the cost of air travel is dropping and persons with disabilities not just visual impairments but with locomotor disabilities, speech and hearing impairment, multiple disabilities and cerebral palsy besides others, find it easier to save themselves time and the hardships of long hours of travel, by opting for a flight.
The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995, chapter eight is on non-discrimination and specifically mentions transport. People with disabilities are demanding accessibility in buses and trains, and the Government is fortunately investing in infrastructure to make these increasingly disabled friendly. MD of the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Madhu recently explained how the BMRCL planned to make the metro accessible. He promised more meetings with people with disabilities, when the architectural plans were being finalised. Why then are the airline companies lagging behind?
In the case filed by Javed Abidi against the Centre, airports were directed to respect the dignity of wheelchair users and provide them with ambu-lifts to enable them to board the flight, this not withstanding the Governments plea on the lack of funds.
Persons with disability are valuable consumers and should not be discriminated against. Airline companies should evolve a policy that is “inclusive”, “disability friendly” and “non-discriminatory”. Their policy should be in keeping with the spirit of The Persons with Disabilities Act 1995. The Policy should take into consideration the different types of disability and evolve a policy on each of them, rather than plaster a single policy on all disabilities. Today, technology has evolved much and is becoming cheaper to access; it should be used by airline companies to widen their consumer base by including people with disabilities.
This article was published in the Deccan Herald on 1st September 2006