Denying boarding to a 13-year-old boy at Ranchi airport on Saturday has brought the spotlight back on gross insensitivity towards persons with disability. While the disability rights activists have raised concerns over the incident, many persons with special needs have recounted their own horrific stories. Despite the guidelines issued by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Supreme Court orders in the Jeeja Ghosh case, such incidents remain a recurring reality, according to them.
“The recent incident is shameful and this seems to recur from time to time,” Poonam Natrajan, former chairperson of National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, told Outlook. “Disability is part of human diversity, but we are not able to overcome these attitudinal barriers.”
Sharply reacting to the IndiGo airline manager’s assertion during some media interviews that his staff is well trained on disability, Natrajan said, “Disability is diverse like all populations, so each time managers and duty bearers have to understand the person first and make well-considered decisions. The airline staff should have learnt to gather information from family, co-passengers and the doctors on board. They all seem to have conveyed that there is no risk. Why did the manager totally ignore them?”
Jeeja Ghosh, a noted disability rights activist who has Cerebral Palsy, has also called out IndiGo airline CEO for his repeated use of the term “normal” during a TV interview last evening wherein he defended his airline’s action.
“How does one define "normal?'" she wrote in a Facebook post, stressing that the word is deemed absolutely redundant in the disability sector. “Or more appropriately put, what is the yardstick of 'normally'? Running the imagination wild, if we in the next decade start walking on our hands, will that be seen as ‘normal’ and why not!”
Jeeja Ghosh was forced to disembark from a SpiceJet flight in February 2012. “She was on her way to speaking on disability issues at an international conference in Goa. The crew onboard noticed her drooling a bit which is common in people with cerebral palsy and decided she is unfit for travel,” recalled Muralidharan, general secretary National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled.
“Incidents and comments such as this are extremely demoralising for those of us who are passionately involved in breaking the discrepancy between ability and disability. We feel that all our efforts are going to waste,” Ghosh wrote, wondering, “They say that history repeats itself, but how many times and for how long?”
On the Ranchi airport incident, she added, “What is actually interesting and encouraging, in this case, is that the co-passengers were empathetic and supportive towards the boy and his parents.”
Recalling a 2012 incident, she added, “I was compelled and literally forced to get off the flight at the whims of the captain who for some reason concluded that I could be a potential threat to the other passengers because of my jerky movements.”
Referring to the subsequent “progressive judgement” by the Supreme Court in 2016 that led to the amendment in the rules on “Carriage by Air - Persons with Disability and/or Persons with Reduced Mobility”, she added, “All efforts seem futile after this incident. History repeated itself once more after 10 years! Can we say that the unfortunate episode happened to satisfy the ego of the Indigo personnel at that point of time?The learned CEO who was seen quoting the DGCA rules a number of times, is sadly ignorant that the rules also state that once a person with disability enters the airport she/he cannot be refrained from boarding the flight.”
Rajiv Ranjan, a noted disability rights activist from Chennai who too has Cerebral Palsy, shared one such instance wherein he was denied boarding by the Air Sahara flight in 2007. “I was invited from Chennai to attend a meeting in Delhi by the National Trust, a statutory body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India. But I was not allowed to board the aircraft as the staff deemed that I was not fit to fly,” Ranjan wrote to Outlook, adding, “When I tried to explain that I am a frequent flyer said the staff wouldn't relent. They even called in the police to send me out of the airport. A couple of policemen recognised me as a frequent flyer and tried to intervene on my behalf but the airline staff refused to listen. The flight took off without me.”
This incident, however, led to the formation of Civil Aviation Rules for the Carriage of Persons with Disabilities and Reduced Mobility in 2010, which were later amended in 2014. Ironically, Ranjan, who was part of a committee formed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation for framing draft guidelines to make air travel easy for persons with disability, was charged Rs 2,500 for a wheelchair at Chennai airport in March against the DGCA circular.
The IndiGo CEO, meanwhile, is also under fire for being insensitive by resorting to the Civil Aviation Requirements or the DGCA rules on the handling of unruly passengers after publicly stating that the child with special needs was in panic and therefore a safety hazard. Notably, these rules were invoked to deal with Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaekwad, who in 2017 hit an Air India official 25 times with his slipper after being denied a business class seat.
Muralidharan, however, raised some pertinent questions: “Don’t tiny tots, with or without disability cry, throw tantrums and create nuisance? What do airlines do when handling such passengers?” He maintained that the airlines, airport operators, security, customs, and immigration bureau organisations must conduct training programmes for the personnel engaged in passenger services to sensitise them about assisting persons with disability or reduced mobility
Muralidharan also referred to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which mandates promotion of values of inclusion, tolerance, empathy and respect of diversity besides, saying the same values must also be included in the curriculum of schools, colleges and universities as per the law. “Just bestowing divine status with a ‘divyang’ label will not alter attitudes and perceptions,” he added.
It may also be recalled here that the allegedly drunk cop on Delhi metro whose video had gone viral on social media in 2016. While the video showed him staggering and struggling to stand straight, he was later discovered that he was actually suffering from a stroke.
Many others working in the disability rights sector too have raised serious concerns. Ketaki Bardalai, executive director of Shishu Sarothi, said, “The attitude and approach of the IndiGo airline is a flagrant violation of the Rights of Persons with Disability Act 2016, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that India has signed and ratified earlier. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has also, after intensive discussions with the disability sector representatives issued their Civil Aviation Regulations guidelines that do not seem to have been adhered to in this case.”
“How long do people with disabilities and their families have to fight to avail of their basic human rights?,” she asked. “We take one step forward and regress two steps each time these kinds of incidents come to light because of the insensitivity of some ignorant people.”
While IndiGo has a provision for ramps, and a safety instruction card in Braille and claims to be disability-friendly, Vaishnavi Jayakumar, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance India, meanwhile, pointed out, the “conflation of conditions of carriage,” elaborating how the specific needs are clubbed together with refusal and limitation of carriage under ‘conditions of carriage’ put out by the airline.
Pritam Kumar Sinha, a Patna resident whose 16-year-old son has Cerebral Palsy, expressed satisfaction that the incident has at least brought the disability rights into focus. Speaking to the Outlook, Sinha said,“But a lot of people travel through trains and buses, where accessibility becomes a major concern. Also, the attitude of the public at large needs to change. I do hope this incident will raise general awareness towards special needs of the persons with disabilities.”