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Flying causes anxiety, humiliation for disabled passengers

Wheelchair sitting by airport windowResearch by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has revealed that disabled flyers are regularly humiliated and physical harmed. Its study of 100 young disabled passengers suggests that 60% feel unsafe when moving from a wheelchair to a plane seat, while the same percentage said their wheelchair has been damaged during a flight.

On top of this, 90% of the respondents said they can’t use the loo on board aircraft, and at least one said he had to urinate in a bottle because of the lack of access. Wheelchair users, therefore, have to void consuming any liquids before or during flights. However, before they even get on a plane, 50% say they have issues booking their tickets because of their disability. Some are deterred from flying at all due to these problems.

Vivek Gohil (22) is a disabled man who hasn’t been on a plane since a bad experience when he was a teen and flying to Portugal. As part of the Trailblazers group with the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, he is fighting to get carriers to improve the travel experience for disabled passengers and has been honoured with the charity’s Inspiring Young Person of the Year award.

Gohil has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, and he said that his experience flying at the age of 15 was so humiliating that he hasn’t been able to travel that way since. He was boarded last on a full plane and told that he had to sit in a window seat. It took five people to get him into the seat. With very little muscle in his neck and back and not having the proper support, he fell backwards. It was really scary and painful, and all the people on board were watching. Because of the incident, the flight was delayed.

To make matters worse, he had to urinate in a plastic bottle with the other passengers around, because there was no way he could use the loo. Then when the flight landed in Portugal, he found that his wheelchair had been damaged pretty bad. This is the only way for him to get around and the only thing that provides the physical support he needs. Checking in his wheelchair was like checking in his spine and legs. The trip was supposed to be a relaxing holiday, but all he got was hassle, embarrassment and stress. Airlines need to ensure air travel is more accessible for disabled travellers. He thinks it will take a while for the changes to be noticeable.

Trailblazers officer Tanvi Vyas says that carriers need to catch up with other modes of transport to cater to disabled passengers. Their investigation has found that air travel is a source of embarrassment and anxiety for many. This regularly leads to ruined holidays, damaged equipment and disabled passengers being deterred from flying altogether.

Vyas added that their report should wake up the industry to the need to significantly overhaul services to meet the basic needs of disabled travellers – from booking a seat to using the loo on board. They need airlines, airports and aviation authorities to stop hiding behind outdated and inconsistent policies and shady responses about safety testing. If man can fly to the moon, wheelchair accessible toilets can be put on a plane. It’s time for disabled travellers to be able to trust carriers and feel confident while they fly.

Complaints from disabled passengers are handled by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Director of regulatory policy Iain Osborne says that there are still times when people don’t get the support they need, which can be very distressing. By notifying the airline and airport of certain needs in advance, passengers can help avoid this. However, if a good quality of service still isn’t delivered, the CAA wants to know so they can work with airlines and airports to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

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