Dear Air France – my wheelchair is like my legs, not luggage
As someone who has saved her best dresses for her visit to Paris. I am not too sure if it will be through Air France. The reason being the airline needs to update and upgrade its understanding of disability. But I am here to help with that pro bono. Or maybe in exchange for some Macarons.
Wheelchair delivery at the Aircraft gate:
On the 12th of December 2022, I was on your carrier from Lisbon to Dubai to speak at Skift Global Forum East, a conference about the future of travel. My talk was about empathy towards people with disabilities. What are the odds? But as I arrived in Dubai, I sat for more than 40 minutes in the aircraft waiting for my wheelchair. This is a provision all good airlines ensure without the daunting effect of waiting with uncertainty as cleaners start cleaning the aircraft. The head of crew then intimated me and made me feel stubborn for asking for my wheelchair repeatedly from the moment of check-in. He asked me to get off on the Airport wheelchair while I ´stood´ my ground and told him that he was violating my human rights. A simple rule of thumb is to know that assistive devices and wheelchairs are like a person´s body. A wheelchair is not baggage, it is like our legs and who wants to see their legs on a conveyer belt? The cane is not baggage for a visually impaired person. Have you ever seen eyeballs being collected from a booth?
Although I admire wheelchairs being available at airports, passengers with a disability must be given the choice to choose whether they want to use the airport wheelchair or their own. If they have their own then it must be provided at the aircraft door while exiting because most of us cannot function in long transits without it. For example, going to the bathroom is a private matter and on an alien wheelchair becomes a difficult task. Sadly the same episode repeated on the journey back from Paris to Lisbon on 16th December 2022 and this time I lacked the energy to fight and decided to get off with the airport wheelchair but the staff expected me to carry my 15 kg heavy wheelchair battery myself. I looked at the airline crew with questioning eyes that all of this could have been avoided if my wheelchair was given to me at the door. I could have continued being an independent person but now sitting on an alien wheelchair that is uncomfortable I do feel disabled. Thanks!
The entire crew stood there blaming the staff, the system, or the ground staff both times. At Dubai Airport I finally got my wheelchair due to the efforts by an officer of Dnata. I deeply admire Syed Kashib Ali Rizvi for doing this for me. The thing is it does not matter who comes to assist at the aircraft door. It could be a company or your uncle. What matters is whom have I paid to get me intact transported to my destination? The Airline. Hence Air France is responsible to ensure my dignity is not compromised for their lack of sensitivity towards disability. If your standard of best is getting the passenger transported alive then you are doing a great job but if it is getting disabled passengers transported with dignity and safety. Then you have failed.
This is also not the first time when Air France left me wanting to have feet. In January 2022 I was transiting for a few hours in Paris and I was again not provided my wheelchair. Instead, I was given a broken wheelchair, with my 15 kg battery placed on my lap, and left in the middle of the transit area all by myself. I could not move, go to the bathroom or get food for myself. I had no way of asking for help since I did not speak French. This was the most discouraging experience for me and I don’t want any person with a disability to ever experience this nightmare. I hope Air France can sensitize their staff and learn about disability from such experiences, ensuring assistance that is practical and not just an outdated system. Ensure the safety of passengers with disabilities while in transit and deliver their assistive devices as per their needs. There is no universal design for disability. But there is one for empathy. It comes from the heart and inclusive leadership. People with disabilities do not need a favor but we need equal space in all systems on dignity in all experiences as per their definitions and not yours. We don’t mind getting in line, I got in one for Macarons on the Airport but we do mind outdated definitions of inclusion which I am sure you will update now.