The Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA’s) recent tweaking of a key Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) to help differently-abled travellers board flights hassle-free has not gone down well with disability rights groups, who have demanded its immediate rollback. Fifty-eight disability rights organisations have endorsed a letter written to Arun Kumar, Director General, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), demanding that the recently amended Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) “be withdrawn with immediate effect”.
Condemning the amended provision as “derogatory and retrograde”, the rights groups have written that the new guidelines “challenges the right to equality for persons with disabilities as guaranteed by the Constitution of India through Article14”. The letter states that the provision is “also discriminatory under Section 3 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016”. The letter concludes that the new provisions would “be a grave injustice to millions of people with disabilities who have been using air transport as a mode of travel” and “literally restrict people with disabilities from travelling for any purpose”.
According to the DGCA’s amendment, airlines can no longer deny boarding to any person on the basis of disability and/or reduced mobility without a doctor first examining the person and stating that the said passenger’s health may deteriorate during the course of the journey. Rights groups accuse the DGCA and the MoCA of functioning under the fallacious and confused belief that “anyone in a wheelchair is ill” and erroneously equating differently-abled travellers with ill health.
Equation of ill health with disability
Rajiv Rajan, Executive Director of Ektha, an organisation for persons with disabilities (PwD) and a key member of the Disability Rights Alliance, is angry with this equation of ill health with disability. Says Rajan: “First of all the DGCA didn’t consult with organisations of persons with disabilities before coming up with the amendment, which is a violation of the motto ‘Nothing about us without us’ of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. India has ratified this convention.”
Rajan, a frequent flyer has, over the years, had a litany of horrible experiences with airline staff and others. He was one of the first persons in India to fight for the rights of differently-abled passengers. Rajan has cerebral palsy and has been mistaken for being drunk by a police officer because of the way he speaks and had a hotel manager refuse him an online booked room because he feared Rajan would soil the bed.
Says Rajan: “How can airline staff decide if a flyer with disability has a deteriorating health condition? Do doctors know enough of disabilities to determine if a PwD can fly or not? This amendment is an absolute violation of the right to freedom of movement and right to equality enshrined in the Constitution of India. We would never want to harm or risk ourselves or anyone else who is flying with us.”
Recently, Yash Ashok Kothari, a Surat resident, accused Air India ground staff of harassing his great grandmother, grandfather, and grandmother who were listed to fly on an Air India flight (AI0777) from Kolkata to Surat on July 24. Speaking to Frontline, he alleged that the airline’s ground staff refused to provide a wheelchair “right up to her seat” for his 90-plus-year-old great grandmother, who is dependent on a wheelchair for mobility, despite the the wheelchair option being selected while booking her ticket.
Alleged Kothari: “My great grandmother, was informed by the airline staff that a wheelchair would be provided only up to the shuttle bus. Thereafter, she would have to get into the bus, and then climb the steps to board the aircraft which was parked in the apron. Forget climbing steps, she is not supposed to even walk. But the airline staff kept insisting that they needed a doctor’s certificate. Fortunately, my grandfather was able to have a doctor send a certificate telephonically, and a wheelchair was then provided.”
‘Existing system arbitrary’
Vaishnavi Jayakumar, the co-founder of The Banyan who describes herself as “a person living with psychosocial disability”, says the existing system is not process-oriented and does not operate on any standard operating procedures, but is arbitrary, with each airport operating as per its own whims and fancies. She says: “In the Kolkata airport incident, the passenger booked for a wheelchair, but there is no option to choose the classification of what sort of wheelchair access the passenger would need. The option to indicate the categorisation by specifying mobility status (can’t walk distances, can’t climb steps, need aisle chair in cabin) instead of generic wheelchair request will also clarify matters for the security agencies who sometimes demand that spinal cord-injured passengers stand up for screening!”
Disability rights groups explain that this could be fixed by allowing passengers to specify mobility requirements through the Special Service Requests (SSRs) codes during the booking stage itself.
Airlines also routinely lose, misplace, or damage wheelchairs. And there is no remedial process in place. In most cases, wheelchairs are customised for differently-abled persons, so one cannot be just picked off a store shelf. Vaishnavi Jayakumar said that airlines were clueless and with several elderly passengers increasingly opting for wheelchair access in addition to disabling the locomotor, airlines are having problems with wheelchair inventory. And, though all assistive devices ought to be provided without any extra cost to differently-abled persons within India, foreign airlines operating in India charge Rs.2,500 as wheelchair assistance.
Recommendations of the Asok Kumar Committee
Rights groups point out that in the incident at Kolkata, the airline’s behavior was also contrary to the recommendations of the Asok Kumar Committee on the Rights of Passengers with Disabilities and Reduced Mobility. The Asok Kumar Committee, under the chairmanship of G. Asok Kumar, Joint Secretary in the MoCA, was constituted by the government in 2012 to look into the problems of persons with disabilities while travelling by air.The committee had put forth a set of recommendations, but even a watered-down version of the recommendations have not been implemented even eight years after they were supposed to have been.
The Freedom of Movement Coalition (FMC), a pan-India group advocating equity in transport, has also roundly criticised the DGCA’s latest amendment to the CAR. States the FMC: “The DGCA amendment penalises those who are atypical in appearance, communication or behavioural expression by requiring additional screening by the average lay person or medical professional who has not been exposed or sensitised to disability or even diversity of the human experience.”
Vaishnavi Jayakumar, who is also a member of FMC, explains: “The proposed amendment is not viable and should be withdrawn. The reality is that “disruptions” or “safety” incidents during a flight could be more likely babies crying due to ear pain, someone having a cardiac crisis, or a drunk passenger being offensive or belligerent. Are we going to make all passengers undergo a breathalyser and blood pressure test or encourage co-passengers, staff and crew to be flexible and accommodative of differences?”
BCAS 2022 security rules
The FMC further states that despite a plethora of daily incidents affecting the safety and well-being of passengers with disabilities, the only other change made in the DGCA’s revision is the long-overdue correction of the reference to the outdated 1995 Disability Act. The rights coalition also wants the DGCA to act on and roll back “the other regressive change impacting flying with a disability in India—the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) 2022 security rules”. They point out that provisions like the one on artificial limbs are not only in violation of Supreme Court orders of December 2021, but are also a cause of pain and distress to the disability community.
Disability right’s groups told Frontline that the DGCA doesn’t provide any rationale for amendments or explanations for recommended changes not being incorporated. Even the Supreme Court ordered sector review of the CAR in December 2021 (Jeeja Ghosh PIL compliance) has been summarily ignored. What the FMC advocates following the Asok Kumar Committee report, which they say would “yield far better outcomes for persons with disabilities who continuously face difficulties despite the CAR”.
The FMC points out that as per the Asok Kumar Committee recommendations, airlines have to incorporate appropriate provisions on their websites within three months from the issuance of a CAR so that passengers with disability have the option to select the required facilities while making the bookings. But this provision has not been enabled online. Again, while the committee’s recommendations for convenient seats that are designated as accessible for persons with disabilities with adequate leg space should be free of charge, in actual fact, all passengers are charged for convenient seats.
Currently, there are glitches galore not only with gate-checked mobility aids but also with the boarding logic for disabled passengers. Airlines, as recommended by the Asok Kumar Committee, don’t maintain frequent travellers’ medical card (FREMEC) records of persons with disability or reduced mobility in their reservations system for easy reference and their future travel.
In a bid to battle “silent airports” like Chennai, rights groups are also fighting for audible announcements, flight information system positioned to ensure readability by people in wheelchairs and those with visual impairment and for ensuring employees are imparted disability-related basic training and refresher training at appropriate intervals.
Disability rights group also want the inclusion of other SSRs in airport and airline processes which they say will help refine the assistance needed, the adoption of a Transportation Security Administration-type downloadable notification card and lanyard for a more dignified security screening and communication, a Bluetooth Beacon wayfinding system to enable the visually impaired identify changing places/standard toilets at airports and a multimodal communication of announcements through text feed for the benefit of the hearing and visually impaired.