A former Paralympian has become the latest traveller with a disability to find herself in an uncomfortable situation due to the inaction of a Canadian airline.
Sarah Morris-Probert was flying WestJet from Cabo San Lucas home to Kelowna, but when she went to board the flight there was no way for her to get up safely using her wheelchair.
Morris-Probert, who is the president of BC Adaptive Snowsports, said on the way to Cabo she asked if there was going to be an air bridge and they were not sure. Luckily, there was an air bridge upon arrival so she was fine, she said.
However, when the vacation was over and Morris-Probert was set to leave, she said it was a different situation.
“The solution was to carry me up the stairs in a wheelchair, which is a really unsafe practice,” she told Global News.
“And the crew agreed. I will add that the WestJet crew on both flights were fabulous, as always.”
Morris-Probert said she was left with no choice but to lift herself up the stairs, one at a time and then transferred to an aisle chair at the top.
“What was so frustrating and humiliating was that people were all around me watching. Plus, the ramp that we could have used was within 50 metres. And just sitting idly by.”
Morris-Probert said she pointed this out to the airport staff and was told that was not “part of their service.”
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This is not the first time that Morris-Probert has had an experience like this one.
Two years ago, she was told by WestJet senior management that her experience wouldn’t happen again and that it must have been an isolated incident.
“The big thing is I have the ability to lift myself up the stairs,” she said. “Other people with disabilities may not. So they would have no choice but to be put in that vulnerable, unsafe situation of being carried by a couple of men that mean well but they’re not trained.”
Maayan Ziv, the founder and CEO of Access Now, said Morris-Probert’s experience, sadly, is not unique.
“If you live with a disability and have ever travelled by air, you know that things go wrong at least half of the time,” she said.
“There’s always something. You know, I’m an avid traveller. I’ve travelled for years and whether it was personally or professionally, I’ve navigated many barriers.”
Ziv said this is a systemic issue that is not specific to any one airline.
“Every airline has these issues to solve, barriers to solve,” she added.
“And it’s why we need government intervention. It’s not just coming from the airlines themselves. And we need the proper standards and procedures that protect travellers with disabilities.”
Ziv said people need to know these issues are still happening and airlines need to be held accountable.
“We’re often treated like second-class citizens when we’re travelling by air,” she said.
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“And I just think that we’ve gotten to the point now where there is enough evidence to believe that this is a systemic issue. It’s targeted towards a specific group, and no other passenger is experiencing the types of barriers that disabled people are and at this point becomes a human rights issue that we need to address.”
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Ziv said the airlines know this is an issue and it should not come as a surprise passengers are experiencing these barriers.
“We are humiliated,” she said. “We are treated in extremely undignified ways and we’re also at risk.”
In a statement, WestJet said it “sincerely” apologizes for the “handline failures” Morris-Probert experienced.
“WestJet strives to ensure that any guest travelling with medical equipment such as wheelchairs is provided with a seamless travel experience and receives care and support throughout their entire journey,” the company said.
WestJet said staff at the Cabo airport were not able to accommodate a bridge-operated gate as they had requested.
“After providing the two options that our staff are qualified and trained to provide, Ms. Morris-Probert declined all assistance from the supervisor and customer service agents. We once again sincerely apologize that we were not able to secure a bridge-operated gate for Ms. Morris-Probert,” the company said.
However, Morris-Probert told Global News that the crew at the airport in Cabo did not know there would be a passenger with a disability, despite her doing everything she could to provide them with advanced notice.
“So what needs to be done is we need to get better access,” she said.
“And as I say, simple solution, let’s use ramps or there are still climbing wheelchairs to add on to the Washington chair.
“But carrying somebody in a Washington chair is not safe. It’s 2023. Let’s move on.”
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.