Monday, November 30, 2009

Advocates hope Paralympian's airport crawling incident will lead to Australian airlines changing the way they treat disabled passengers

From the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia:

Disability advocates hope the Paralympian Kurt Fearnley (pictured) can do what others are already trying to do in the courts: force Australian airlines to change the way they treat disabled passengers.

Mr Fearnley crawled the Kokoda Track on the palms of his hands - all 96 gruelling, muddy kilometres of it. But with a short crawl through Brisbane Airport this week, the athlete ignited debate about what could be his most difficult challenge yet.

He said he chose to crawl through Brisbane Airport rather than use an unsuitable chair offered by Jetstar after the airline made him check in his own.

A disabled activist, Sheila King, is suing Jetstar for discrimination because the budget airline allows only two wheelchairs on each flight. Ms King has had post-polio syndrome since childhood and had a car accident last year. She was not allowed on a flight to Queensland last year, so she booked a flight on another airline and took Jetstar to the Federal Court.

Meanwhile, Maurice Corcoran and Tom Ferguson had a win over Virgin Blue in September after a three-year battle. They sued the airline for requiring them to travel with carers even though they manage by themselves in day-to-day-life. Virgin Blue has agreed to amend its policy.

Flight Closed, a Public Interest Advocacy Centre report two years ago, unearthed more than 100 examples of airlines failing disabled passengers.

Some were given back their chairs in pieces after a flight, or not at all; some did not have aisle chairs so the disabled could travel from seat to toilet mid-flight; and some would not take larger chairs unless lobbied to do so.

''You might expect things to be improving [but] we found it's getting worse,'' the centre's Robin Banks said this week.

The Federal Government has convened a working group of carriers and disability groups to work through some of the issues.

But Bill Shorten, the parliamentary secretary for disabilities, said three or four new complaints had arrived in his office on Monday, when news of Mr Fearnley's treatment emerged.

Wheelchairs have evolved into very personalised pieces of equipment, as unique as any set of legs, Mr Shorten said. ''It's not good enough to give people a Crimean War-era chair and expect them to make do. Of course it's about money. But the trick is not to do the minimum necessary, but to do the best.''

At a National Disability Awards dinner in Canberra on Monday, Mr Fearnley said there was ''not a chance'' he would ''sit there and be pushed through an airport''.

''A normal person's equivalent would be having your legs tied together, your pants pulled down and be carried or pushed through an airport.''

Jetstar apologised and promised to address the matter with him privately, but noted in a statement that it carries up to 450 wheelchair-bound passengers each week without incident, and that its policy is for them to be transferred from their own wheelchair into a specifically designed airline wheelchair at or near the boarding gate.
But Mr Fearnley has seen an opportunity to use his profile in a lengthy fight being waged between those who fly and those who cannot walk. An apology was not going to cut it, he said.