Saturday, April 23, 2011

UN Special Rapporteur on disability, who is a wheelchair user, barred from boarding Swissair flight

From The Malta Independent:

European disability rights movements were flabbergasted on hearing that a high United Nations disability representative was prohibited by Swissair from boarding a flight that would have taken him from London to Geneva.

The passenger, the UN Special Rapporteur on disability, Shuaib Chalklen, who is a wheelchair user, was not allowed to board flight LX353 from London to Geneva on the grounds of his disability.

According to the European Disability Forum, the airline’s reason for not allowing this passenger to fly is in direct violation of EU law governing the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility.

Subsequently, the Commission vice-president for transport, Siim Kallas, released a report on the functioning and effect of this regulation. This report additionally demonstrates the gravity of such discriminatory behaviour. Freedom of movement is the EDF’s top campaign in 2011. Therefore, in response to this incident, the disability movement called on the EU to step up its monitoring of EU law and for a clear definition of concepts to improve the journey for 80 million persons with disabilities.

On Monday 4 April, Mr Chalklen was informed that he couldn’t board the flight he booked if he planned to travel unaccompanied, because the Swiss Air Medical Department argued that he could not use the sanitary facilities independently. The standard flight time for this route, from London to Geneva, is one hour, 40 minutes, and although Mr Chalklen is a frequent and experienced flyer, he was refused access on the grounds of his disability.

The EU regulation concerning the rights of disabled people and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air clearly states that it is illegal to deny air travel to disabled people and that these rules apply to all commercial passenger air services on departure, transit or arrival within the territory of the EU, in this case the UK. The only exception to this rule can be made “in order to meet applicable safety requirements established by international, Community or national law”. However, Mr Chalklen was denied carriage because he could not independently use the bathroom, which is clearly not a flight safety issue.

Commissioner Kallas published a report on this regulation, mentioning that “some carriers tend to mix up requirements related to flight safety”. The Commission repeated that “if boarding is denied for safety reasons, this must be done solely for flight safety reasons”, recognising that there are still problems with the implementation of the regulation and hinting towards the misuse of the rules.

This incident is a prime example of the discriminatory attitudes that persons with disabilities face on a daily basis when travelling. In response to this case, vice-president Kallas clearly stated that the series of measures contained in the Commission report, which was released earlier this week, intended to clarify and strengthen their rights, with the purpose to “avoid situations where people with a disability or reduced mobility are unduly refused access”. To further alleviate the situation and limit such barriers to free movement, the disability movement suggests that airlines consider improved staff training that includes a disability perspective to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities.

The EDF has devoted its efforts in 2011 particularly to the issue of freedom of movement and increasing the accessibility to transport and similar services. The EDF regards that in this case, as in many others, the right to free movement was infringed due to a lack of understanding and awareness of disability issues. Yannis Vardakastanis, president of the EDF, added that “persons with disabilities cannot yet freely move, work and live in other countries as simply as other EU citizens. The EU has committed itself to guaranteeing freedom of movement to all citizens; it is now time to deliver this promise to the 80 million Europeans with disabilities as well.”