Disability: Comair errs on the side of caution

2013-08-13 13:01
Cape Town - Close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears – as you try to imagine being blind and deaf at the same time. Now imagine making the brave decision to get over the difficulties life has handed you, only to encounter more stumbling blocks.

This is pretty much standard for many disabled people as the world around us is often not designed to accommodate disability.

South African born priest Cyril Axelrod, now based in the United Kingdom, has been deaf since birth and later lost his sight to Usher syndrome in 1980. But for the past 13-years he has been proving that having a disability does not mean you need to live a lesser life.

Axelrod has been flying across the globe unaided with a Medical Card issued by British Airways PLC confirming he is blind and deaf and can manage unaided on board a flight. The card also confirms crew can communicate with him by writing on his palm.

Until recently that is. The International advocate for deaf and blind people, who is in Cape Town to develop a training and services programme with the Deaf Federation of South Africa, says he was ‘humiliated’ by local airline Comair after it refused to allow him to board the plane because its policy differs from British Airways PLc (Comair only operates under licence of BA, but is entirely South African owned and a separate business entity). Subsequently, Axerol missed a mass being held for the deaf in Johannesburg, at which he was meant to speak. Not the most inspiring message for those who more than likely came to be encouraged about their condition.

On the other hand, reimagine yourself as deaf and blind. Now add the scenario of an in-flight emergency similar to the recent Asiana crash landing. Even as a fully abled person it is a frightening thought, let alone having to cope without two key senses.

Comair says that although it tries to align its policies with those of British Airways Plc, it also has its own safety procedures with respect to transporting disabled persons which are approved and supported by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).  

“For the safety of the customer as well as fellow passengers and crew, Comair requires customers who will be unable to help themselves in the event of an emergency evacuation of the aircraft to be escorted by an attendant.”

SACAA spokesperson Phindiwe Gwebu says, "In this case Comair's procedure in handling the specials needs passenger adheres to approved policy.

According to the CAA regulations "air service operator must ensure the aeroplane and crew are notified when a passenger with a disability is to be carried on board; a passenger with a disability is not seated in the same row or a row directly forward or aft of an emergency exit; individual briefings on emergency procedures are given to a passenger with a disability and his able-bodied assistant, appropriate to the needs of such passenger; and the person giving the briefing shall enquire as to the most appropriate manner of assisting the person with a disability so as to prevent pain or injury to that person."

Comair remains adamant that these requirements are clearly stated in the General Conditions of Carriage, despite other airlines such as South African Airways and British Airways ascribing to the United States Department of Transport rule for non-discrimination on the basis of disability. US rules states that “airlines must train employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental, and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability.

"Airlines must also train these employees to recognize requests for communication accommodation from individuals whose hearing or vision is impaired and to use the most common methods for communicating with these individuals that are readily available, such as writing notes or taking care to enunciate clearly, for example. Training in sign language is not required.

Airlines must also train these employees to recognize requests for communication accommodation from deaf-blind passengers and to use established means of communicating with these passengers when they are available, such as passing out Braille cards if available, reading an information sheet that a passenger provides, or communicating with a passenger through an interpreter, for example.”  A full copy of the rules are available here.

Is having to provide special assistance to disabled individuals too much to expect from cabin crew, considering the varied circumstances an in-flight emergency could throw at them?

Comair staff confirmed that communicating with Axelrod was indeed a challenge, and these were under normal circumstances.

“We explained that at the time the booking was made he was advised that an attendant would be required to accompany him on his flight. Mr Axelrod arrived at the airport without an attendant and indicated that he was not willing to pay for such an attendant on his flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. We are currently liaising with Mr Axelrod to accommodate him in his further travels.”

This then begs the question, is it fair for disabled people who have been medically approved to fly alone, to have to pay for an additional ticket in order to meet the requirements? Financially speaking, job opportunities for deaf and blind people are not exactly available dime a dozen.

According to the National Director for the Deaf Federation for South Africa Bruno Druchen said, "It is totally unacceptable and against the principles of the UN Convention on the rights of people with Disabilities, on which the SA government is one of the signatories, for Comair to have treated deaf and blind priest Cyril Axelrod the way they did.”

Article 9 of the UN convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities deals specifically with accessibility and states, "To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas. These measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility."

Druchen who is also deaf says travelling is difficult for people with disabilities.

"Announcements are made at the airports but no information is communicated that is an accessible form for deaf people to know what is happening."

"Flight information and announcements in the plane when travelling are also not accessible. Staff members are, in general, not trained on how to assist disabled passengers."

According to information found on local airline websites, all passengers with a medical condition or who are travelling with a disability are required to notify the airline beforehand, as well as check-in at least 90-minutes before departure.

Are you or do you know of a disabled traveller who has had similar issues with airlines? Tell us your story: info@news24travel.com


Read more on:    comair  |  flights  |  air travel  |  travel south africa

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