Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hello British Airways? It's Blair from America.

From a recent trip to Kuwait, I came back home to see another cop dumping a disabled person out of their wheelchair while in a jail cell. I can’t figure out why this is the behavior law enforcement has towards searching an individual in a chair. When I go through security at the airport they don’t dump me out of my chair. But the process to the Gate is still archaic.

I arrived at JFK February 11th to fly to Kuwait. It was 5:30am and I approached the British Airways check-in counter. Rosemary was at the counter. She looked tired and withdrawn. Right away she asked me if I was alone. She asked if I could walk. She asked if I could take care of myself on the plane.

I am a paraplegic. Completely independent. So independent I don’t even identify with the issue. I just move around this partially accessible world my own way, minding my own business, until this peace is disrupted. This time by Rosemary.

She couldn’t understand what I meant when I said I couldn’t walk but I could transfer on my own. You see, on the BA website and from my own conversations and research with customer service, you don’t need medical clearance if you have a permanent injury and if you are independent physically. As long as you can manage on your own while on the plane-transferring yourself and using the rest-room yourself, you are allowed to fly without question. The airplane is equipped with an aisle chair and the flight attendants just have to push it to the bathroom for you and you transfer yourself. It took a few minutes and patience and also embarrassment for Rosemary to understand this. She reminded me that she had been working at JFK for over 25 years and this was news to her.

What was also news to Rosemary was allowing me to go through the security gate unescorted. After she finished checking me in she refused to let me go on to the gate until she checked with her supervisor. Not only is this embarrassing, but it is also limiting. She is making me dependent on her own ignorance. She said for insurance reasons I couldn’t go by myself. I told her politely, that I fly out of JFK a lot and I have never been told this. Ever. I asked if this person escorting me was to follow me around the airport? She said no, just through the Gate. I had to wait at the check-in desk while she walked across the lobby found another employee who had to radio to someone in an Ivory Tower and ask if this was true. She finally came back, and an “express check-in”, I had checked in online before coming to the airport, turned into an event. Or in respects theatre/performance art, a possible “Happening”.

I am really getting tired of this.

It is never the same procedure while checking-in. Ever. It is as if each employee has their own version of the rules and regulations, with no understanding or knowledge of the online rules and regulations while flying BA. And you can’t tell them that. Which was the case when I flew out of JFK in October of 2007 and the “supervisor”, a young man, told me that I couldn’t fly if I couldn’t go to the bathroom on my own, out loud in front of many passengers at the check-in desk. This also happened while checking-in for my BA flight back to London from Kuwait on February 17th. The woman at the front of the line asked me repeatedly if I could walk, if I needed help on the plane. I told her I needed no help transferring or in the ladies room, I just needed the aisle chair to get from my seat to the bathroom. She could not understand this for whatever reason and told me while I was checking-in to leave Kuwait that I wouldn’t be able to fly by myself because I couldn’t’ walk. It was policy. I told her this was incorrect. She said she had to check with her supervisor. While a young man was manually checking me in she got word from her supervisor and said I could fly by myself but she had to change my seat and she down-graded me all the way to the back of the plane.

You can’t argue too aggressively with these employees of BA because then they will have the ammunition to really not let you fly. So you have to calmly explain to them the rules and regulations. I feel when in these situations I have more understanding of their policy than they do.

Which was the case with Rosemary, her supervisor finally said I could go ahead by myself. So I did. Completely humbled. But this time also empowered. There is something here. An issue that needs to be resolved. Whether it’s training their employees at the Gate correctly and consistently, there is something here. Like the law enforcement officers dumping a quadriplegic out of his wheelchair, they must be held accountable and also as in Rosemary’s case trained properly so that this situation does not continue to happen.

What I fear most is that the lack of knowledge and training will manifest into a situation where human beings will make up their own rules because what exists now is far too grey. And that can become dangerous. Look at what has happened recently while in police custody. What they don't know can hurt us.


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