Last week, Aditya Mehta was on his way to Hyderabad when he was stopped at the Bengaluru airport and made to undergo a gruesome security check during which his prosthetic leg was yanked off by Central Industrial Security Force personnel. By evening, his leg was bleeding. It was the second time in as many months that this had happened to him.
In India, shabby treatment of the disabled during air travel is business as usual. Earlier this year, Anita Ghai was forced to crawl to the passenger coach at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport as Air India could not find her a wheelchair. In 2012, SpiceJet ordered Jeeja Ghosh off its plane after the captain deemed her not fit to fly. Ghosh is afflicted with cerebral palsy and the airline staff did not know how to handle her. In May this year, in a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court ordered SpiceJet to pay Ghosh Rs 10 lakhs in compensation.
Mehta’s case is a combination of insensitive security staff and the absence of the latest scanning technology at airports. Ghai’s is one of negligence by Air India ground staff. And in the case of Ghosh, the problem was the insensitivity shown by SpiceJet crew and pilots towards a person with a disability.
All three people have one thing in common – they are individuals who have overcome their disabilities. Mehta is an internationally acclaimed para-cyclist who won a double silver at the Asian Para-Cycling Championships in 2013. Ghai is a professor, author and disability rights activist. Struck with polio more than 30 years before India had a Persons with Disabilities Act, she is now single-handedly setting up a disability studies programme at Ambedkar University in Delhi, where she teaches. And Ghosh was travelling from Kolkata to Goa for an international conference that intended to put a special focus on the challenges faced by persons with disabilities living in the global South.
Being the achievers they are, they had the ability to respond to the treatment handed out to them. But for every one of them, there are thousands more who are scarred for life by such experiences and lose the confidence to perform the most mundane of activities, like traveling in a plane.
Now, I am not asking for security procedures to be eased. No one wants to make it easier for terrorists to attack a country.
But we need a two-pronged approach to deal with the problems persons with disabilities face while flying – modernisation of technologies and a standard operating procedure.
Today, most internationally acclaimed airports do not require prosthetics to go through X-ray scanners. The world has moved into an era of full body scanners. in India, however, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security has been blocking the introduction of full body scanners, saying they are still “exploring its feasibility at Indian airports keeping in view privacy (issues) and health hazards from radiation”.
India has not exactly been a champion of the privacy of its citizens, nor has it been a guard against health hazards. I am inclined to trust the judgement of the Unites States of America on both these matters.
The second step is to ensure airports that already have handheld Explosives Trace Detection machines start using them while others start buying them. Currently, 77 Indian airports have these devices but I have never seen one in use. This would help wheelchair users, who are physically transferred out of their wheelchairs while these are put through an X-ray scan. An Explosives Trace Detection test along with a physical pat-down while the person is sitting on his chair can easily replace this humiliating exercise.
Another challenge wheelchair users face is physically getting into aeroplanes. While Indigo pulled off a masterstroke by replacing its stairs with a ramp, chair-bound passengers are dependant on ambulifts for which they are charged a fee. But ambulifts are available only in 20 cities. So, what happens when the flyer is not travelling to or from one of those 20 cities or cannot afford the ambulift charge? He is physically carried up the stairs to the aircraft.
Another way of making air travel easier for the disabled would be to standardise operating procedure. I will give one example here. When travelling with a battery-operated wheelchair, users do not know whether to check in the batteries or leave them plugged in. But whatever choice the flyer may make, the airport security personnel will be unhappy and say they prefer the other. A centralised agency should aggregate complaints and assign ownership between airport, airline and security personnel. We must know where the buck stops.
In its conclusion of the Jeeja Ghosh case against SpiceJet, the Supreme Court said, quoting Helen Keller, “Some people see a closed door and turn away. Others see a closed door, try the knob and if it doesn’t open, they turn away. Still others see a closed door, try the knob and if it doesn’t work, they find a key and if the key doesn’t fit, they turn away. A rare few see a closed door, try the knob and if it doesn’t open, they find a key and if it doesn’t fit, they make one.”
I hope the Civil Aviation Ministry was listening.
The writer is a wheelchair user who is still waiting to have a glitch-free air journey. His Twitter handle is @nipunmalhotra.