Is it easy for disabled people to travel abroad? Since we often associate disability with limitations, it is reasonable to assume that disabled people tend to travel only for medical or religious reasons. This is mainly because we often perceive disabled people as sick individuals, in need of care, a cure or even a miracle. Most people cannot begin to imagine disabled people travelling abroad as part of their work, or just to have fun with their friends.
As a disabled air traveller myself, I come across many who believe it is next to impossible for me to travel, or to even consider the possibility of travelling abroad. Granted, the possibility of overseas travel may have been prohibitive for disabled people in the past. But EU regulations such as the Disabled Air Passengers Bill (EC 1107/2006), which recognises the equal rights of disabled citizens to access air travel, have put the opportunity to travel within reach of disabled people. This fact emerged following a number of interviews I conducted on behalf of KNPD to learn more about the travelling experiences of disabled people. In fact, this article is only possible thanks to the participation of disabled people themselves – and a parent – who all had experiences of travelling abroad.
Why air travel?
Disabled people reported that they have used various means of transport to travel abroad, ranging from cars to trains and ships. However, air travel appeared to be the preferred choice of all the participants when travelling abroad. For this reason – and the fact that, to date, air travel remains the only EU travel-related regulation adopted throughout the EU that is directly relevant to Malta – it may be worthwhile to look closely at the experiences of disabled people when it comes to travelling by air.
A lack of adequate support
It may be stating the obvious to say that mainstream air travel would not be possible if we had no airports. However, if an airport is not accessible to everyone, or fails to provide inclusive services, disabled people may be unable to travel by air at all. For disabled people living on a small island, this is tantamount to saying that they would possibly never be able to travel in their entire lives. This fact is being recognised across Europe and around the world. Regulations like the Disabled Air Passengers Bill mentioned earlier appear to be achieving results in terms of disabled people’s access to air travel. Indeed, participants had positive experiences with the level of access and support they found in airports across Europe, including Malta International Airport.
Notwithstanding this, participants also noted that they still encountered some problems at airports. For example, one parent reported that airport staff once made it difficult and took a long time to provide his son with a lifter to board the plane. Likewise, a blind woman complained that the airport attendants once left her in the waiting area on her own without updating her on the flight. At one point, she had to ask a fellow passenger to guide her to her gate. At the same time, she told us how, because she had notified the airport that she was blind, attendants insisted that she sat on a wheelchair to board the plane when all she needed was some sighted assistance. On the other hand, participants who had an intellectual impairment reported that airport staff either avoided having direct contact with them or failed to explain to them what was happening. In fact, staff tended to speak to anyone accompanying them.
Of course, this does not mean that all airport personnel failed to listen or respond adequately to the concerns of disabled people. Such incidences could be easily avoided if airport staff took the time to listen and respond effectively to the concerns of disabled travellers. Personally speaking, the fact that I am a wheelchair user has also meant that some personnel have assumed that I could not speak for myself and tended to talk to anyone who appeared to be travelling with me.
Access to Information
If one considers the amount of visual information with which we are presented at the airport, one realises that the provision of adequate support on its own is not enough. This is especially true for people with a sensory impairment or those with an intellectual or learning disability. In this sense, airports must make sure that their sites are accessible and offer information in an electronic format that can be accessed by blind people so that they can access the information they need prior to their trip. People with learning disabilities, or an intellectual impairment, can equally benefit from information provided in an easy-to-read format. On the other hand, deaf people who depend on visual information require clear print information which explains key details about their flight and trip. Similarly, deaf participants have pointed out that there is sometimes a lack of signage to indicate the location of key areas in the airport.
Another crucial element that can affect the travelling experiences of disabled people is access to communication. Deaf participants said that communication can be a major barrier to deaf people, since it is unusual for airport personnel to know how to use Maltese Sign Language (MSL). Deaf participants therefore requested that airport staff have a basic knowledge of MSL.
In contrast, participants who, like Adam*, had an intellectual impairment, felt they were ignored by most airport staff. Likewise, people with a learning disability, such as Dave* and Claire*, reported that staff were reluctant to answer their questions while those who also had communication problems, such as Paul*, felt that he was dismissed the moment he tried to speak.
Mary*, a wheelchair user, suggested that all airport staff receive some form of disability equality training (DET) to make staff aware of the proper way to relate to disabled people to reduce such negative incidents. She noted that she often felt as if she was cargo being loaded. An experience which, as a wheelchair user, I can relate to very well and I often wonder whether I become invisible and they are actually seeing an empty wheelchair!
Conclusion: planning ahead
In this article, I have explored the various factors that can make travelling by air easier and more enjoyable for disabled people. While physical access remains an important element in providing disabled people with an equal opportunity to travel, accessible travel also includes ensuring they have adequate support, proper access to information and the ability to communicate. Another crucial point we must keep in mind is to ensure we have the right attitude towards disabled people: an attitude that is not patronising and does not ignore us or diminish our human dignity.
At the same time, disabled travellers, or those travelling with a disabled person, can help ensure a smooth trip by planning ahead. As Mary* suggests, planning ahead can mean that we receive the proper support and assistance at the airport all the way to the actual boarding. However, it is essential that we inform the airport what kind of support and assistance is required before leaving for the airport and, ideally, as soon as we book the flight.
But why is it important for us – disabled people – to travel abroad. I think this comment made by Dave, a person with intellectual disability, sums it all up beautifully: “…disabled and non-disabled people should be treated equally. They should not stay in their own country… They should see the world!”
For Dave’s comments to become a reality for more disabled people, we need to make sure that travel truly is accessible to all.
*Names have been changed
This article forms part of a project carried out by KNPD entitled Inclusion, Participation, Accessibility: Cornerstones for Personal Fulfilment, which is supported by the EU Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity – PROGRESS (2007-2013). For more information see: http://ec.europa.eu/progress
Original source: http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2013-07-21/opinions/disabled-we-fly-2123857922/