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No air travel for the mentally challenged?

Baishali Adak, Jul 11, 2014, DHNS : 21:16 IST

Concerning issue

In yet another case of violation of rules regarding ‘air transportation of the disabled’ and sheer insensitivity, a woman with an autistic child was recently told by Air India staff that they “do not accept passengers with any mentaldisability/challenge/autism.”

Though she took up the matter with the board of directors, Air India, and they wrote back to her saying that the incident will be investigated, there was no word of assurance that her son will be allowed to fly with the airline in future.

With several such cases having surfaced in the past, the present case again points to gaps in implementation of guidelines set in this regard by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) combined with lack of staff training. All of this ends up inconveniencing the differently abled who are already burdened by various problems on a daily basis.

Nikita Sarah, head, Advocacy and Communication, The Leprosy Mission Trust India, called up the Air India Customer Support on June 21 to enquire about facilities and discounts, if any, available for the differently abled. To her shock, she was told that Air India does not carry passengers with any mental disability at all. When she requested the call to be transferred to a superior, the manager reiterated the stand. The same day she e-mailed the Board of Directors, Air India, and they responded with an apology and a promise to “look into the matter and revert”. Sarah is yet to hear from them.

Not a one-off incident

Disability rights activists inform us this is not a case in isolation. A few years back, a prominent film actor from the south, Prithviraj, had to face a similar situation when his son was denied entry into the Bangalore airport. The security staff insisted that “his son was a security threat to other passengers.” In 2012, Jeeja Ghosh, director of Advocacy and Disability Studies at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, was forced to deboard a private airline at Kolkata airport when the staff made a wrongful demand for a‘fitness certificate.’

Javed Abidi, chairperson of Disabled People’s International (DPI), says, “It is surprising if such an incident has occurred. It is not that people with physical or mental disabilities do not travel by air. I know such persons who fly by Air India all the time, but it’s an example of airlines today not investing in training their staff properly. This has specifically been stressed upon in the DGCA guidelines on travel for people with disabilities.”

“If you look at countries like US and Britain, you will rarely ever find such instances because a single such remarkor insensitive conductsparks lawsuits.”

Merry Barua, founder dire-ctor of Action for Autism (AFA), adds, “It is really hypocritical that when drunk passengers get on board and make scenes, or when politicians throw their weight arou-nd, the staff does nothing. But when an autistic child makes noises, people get all officious and devise their own rules.”

Ministry’s take

Though Air India officials could not be reached despite several attempts, when Metrolife spoke to Poonam Natarajan, chairperson, National Trust, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, she said, “It is very disheartening to hear this.

Unfortunately, such incidents keep occurring inspite of repeated clarifications that the mentally and physically challenged have a right to fly. I will find out from the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Air India why this is recurring and how it can be put to an end.”

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