My friend, Daniela Dimitrova travels nearly 300 days a year. She is beautiful, single, and blind since she was 6 years old. In the last 5 years that I have known her, I haven’t seen her need any more assistance in her travels than what’s absolutely essential- to guide her with directions in the airport and make sure she makes it to the right gate. Issues that many of us “regular” travelers might also face. In fact, many a times I have marveled at her ability to be super independent and find her way to a favourite restaurant in an airport purely based on smells, something a direction-challenged me almost never gets right.
And Dani isn’t the only blind or physically challenged traveler in the world who just wants to lead a full life in a dignified, complete manner, experiencing the beauty of the world and her people.
It pained me to no end to read this story the other day where a physically challenged person was offloaded a plane because she was considered a “security risk”. And surprised to see this issue being raised by a Spice Jet pilot, because I have been super impressed with their service to other physically challenged people who I have accompanied or seen off at the airport, totally satisfied with the level of assistance provided by their ground staff. Which makes me believe that is an instance of personal prejudice.
This isn’t new- many friends in the Dialogue in the Dark network often complain of being offloaded, made to wait for hours or de-planed minutes before take off because they are considered a “security risk”. And this isnt restricted to India alone. Friends in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Dubai have raised these complaints in recent times. In the era of these countries vying with each other to be medical tourism destinations, it seems rather silly to even discuss this issue.
The thing is its not a matter of choice or personal preferences that airlines have. IATA and its members have a resolution in place that lays out service standards for passengers with reduced mobility. The resolution specifies how airlines should communicate passenger special needs and what services should be provided on the ground and in flight. It requires that airlines have special equipment made available when necessary, calls for priority boarding to be offered and for airlines to ensure that passengers with special needs receive individual briefings on safety procedures, aircraft layouts and specialised equipment available on board. It also provides a general requirement for passengers with reduced mobility to be attended throughout the entirety of an airport transfer. The US goes a step further by actually passing a bill to ensure travelers with disabilities are allowed to lead their lives and explore the world without their handicap interfering.
Its time we give this issue the seriousness it deserves. The next time a blind or a mentally challenged or an infirm needing a wheel chair is denied his or her rightful place in a mode of transport - don’t be a mute spectator. A person feels as “disabled” as we, collectively as a society, will make them feel. As a friend told me sometime back- “I feel less blind in Sweden than I feel in Indonesia, only because I get the infrastructure and assistance to get about my life without being dependant on anyone”. It’s all a matter of perspective….and of opportunities. Lets be human, and lets make this beautiful world worthy enough to live and travel- for all.