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Airlines must do better for the disabled

Airplane staircase
Airplane staircase

Commercial airlines claim to be wheelchair accessible. Their compliance with certain standards of accommodation for the disabled is the law. Our experience puts the lie to that claim.

As many CJN readers know, my husband, Rabbi Howard Joseph, is confined to a wheelchair because he cannot walk. We have travelled before and managed, although one Canadian carrier lost our wheelchair.

Despite that experience, we planned a trip for our grandson’s bar mitzvah. Of course, the storm arrived in time for our departure. The flight was cancelled, but don’t worry, came the email, we have rebooked you: Howard on one flight and Norma on another! Thus began our great adventure in catastrophe. Our agent had noted on the ticket that we three were not to be separated (my husband’s aide travels with us). But computerized software does not read added notations.

(Caveat: we would never have survived and arrived at our simchah without the watchful guardianship of our wonderful agent.)

The airlines did their best to destroy our plans and us.

I bought three new first-class tickets.  Our only priority was to get to the bar mitzvah. Typically, I buy Howard first-class tickets, as he cannot walk down the aisle to economy. But this time, for all of us, first-class were the only seats available.


When we arrived in Toronto, we missed our connection. No one seemed to care that leaving a disabled man overnight was not a simple matter. We managed to transfer to a partner carrier so that we could get to Denver the same day. Incomprehensibly, the new airline recognized their partnership enough to accept our tickets for travel to Denver. But they placed us all in economy when I had clearly bought and paid for first-class seats. I started worrying immediately about getting my husband all the way into the economy seats, but I was thrilled we had seats on a plane.

The flight was delayed from 4 to 8 p.m. At that point, we had been up since 2 a.m.
and eager to get to our destination. I consistently urged the various agents to place my husband in the empty business class seat. No one was interested, but they all assured me that agents on the ground would have the necessary equipment to get him on board. Don’t worry!

At the gate, the local agent explained that the plane’s access was via stairs only. She asked: “Can’t he just walk up the stairs?” How embarrassing for him. The passengers got on, and a ramp was put over the stairs.

Another agent pushed him up the ramp. Lo and behold, the ramp stopped four feet shy of the door to the aircraft. The agent looked at me and asked, “What shall I do?”

“Yes, What will you do?” I replied.

She responded: “He will just have to stay here and not travel.”

Is this wheelchair accessibility? Does this fit with any assurance that agents have the necessary equipment? Does this sound like staff that is helpful and supportive?

Our aide then lifted my husband and carried him over the narrow bridge into the aircraft. There was an empty seat in the first row. I asked the staff on board to please let Howard sit down. It was no longer safe for him to be carried forward, but the onboard crew steadfastly refused.

Exhausted and distressed, we finally reached our destination, but you guessed it: our luggage did not.

What kind of service, care and responsibility is this? Is this what we can expect in terms of wheelchair accessibility? Is this the face of human decency? We met a legally blind woman on that plane who was equally traumatized by the staff and the conditions. How can we exact justice, decency, respect or fairness from our transportation industry? Is this the 21st century? Is this the Canadian or American way?