India’s Skies are Unfriendly for Passengers with Disabilities

Shocking instances of negligence and insensitivity towards differently-abled female air passengers in India’s two largest cities have brought to light the need for both social and regulatory changes

Flying can be an obstacle race for passengers with disabilities. Credit: Nicola Romagna

Flying can be an obstacle race for passengers with disabilities. Credit: Nicola Romagna

On 29 January, Professor Anita Ghai of Ambedkar University, Delhi was returning to the capital from the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. While everything went almost according to protocol at Dehradun airport (even there, there was no aisle chair inside the aircraft), the airline, Air India, denied her a wheelchair when they landed in Delhi. After spending almost an hour waiting after the aircraft had landed (first in her seat and then outside the door of the aircraft), she was left little choice but to crawl to the coach. A wheelchair was only brought once she reached the arrivals hall. She requested the airline to at least take her personal wheelchair out of the hold if they did not have one available, but they said this was not possible.

As a disability rights activist and seasoned traveller, Ghai was left “disappointed and dejected” by the incident. If the negligence was not enough, Air India has issued a statement strongly denying these charges, saying that a wheelchair was provided at the door of the aircraft, even if a little delayed. “They are lying through their teeth”, Ghai told The Wire.

The most frustrating part for her was that existing protocol was not followed. “It is not a favour they are doing for me”, she said. “It is not charity we are asking for, it is a level playing field and the ability to travel in a dignified way. Why should I not be given the facilities I have paid for? The negligence of not doing your work should be answered for.”

In another instance on the same day, this time in Mumbai airport, 24 year-old Antara Telang was forced to take off her prosthetic leg and put it through the luggage scanner before she was allowed to board her flight. Telang says she has faced this “humiliating experience” several times when flying out of Mumbai, though this has never happened in any other airport either in India or abroad. She is made to remove her leg, which means taking off her trousers, and the leg is then put through the scanner with other people’s baggage. While this happens rarely in other airports if there is a random check, in Mumbai airport this is the protocol.

A few months ago, Telang approached a disability rights lawyer on whether there was any way around this procedure because she was otherwise trying to find alternatives to flying. Her lawyer suggested two possible methods – one is a hand-held ETD (explosives trace detector) that all airports are legally obliged to have, and the other is to get a physical pat-down that would indicate if anything was hidden in the prosthetic. Telang told the security of these options the last time she travelled as well as yesterday, but her suggestions were not taken into account. Instead, security personnel she encountered on Saturday challenged her by asking what the full-form of ETD was, and told her not to make a big deal of things.

When Telang finally agreed to go through the process in order to not miss her flight, she was taken to a “private room” where she could take of her prosthetic limb. This room was a storage room with two chairs kept at the other end from the door, meaning that she had to hop across the room on one leg to hand over the prosthetic to be put through the scanner. “All I want is to travel with my dignity and privacy”, she told The Wire.

While Ghai’s case shows how wrong things can go when protocol isn’t followed, Telang’s incident reveals that there are many rules that still need serious rethinking. Particularly in a day and age where none of these things need to happen and viable alternatives exist, a basic sensitivity can go a long way.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.