Justin Levene’s Luton airport protest should be a watershed moment for disabled people

Watching Justin Levene drag himself across the floor at Luton airport – his wheelchair had been lost in transit – might be a watershed for disabled people and our quest for better treatment in the aviation and travel industry.

For too long travel providers have had an eyes-wide-shut attitude in their duty of care to wheelchairs users, and this has to change – we are human beings, after all.

I’ve been a wheelchair user for more than 10 years now, having lived with multiple sclerosis for most of my adult life. My condition and reliance on my wheelchair (“my legs”) mean trips abroad, or anywhere, for that matter, have to be planned with military precision. I’ve learned to accept that airlines were not designed with disabled people in mind, so it’s rare that any journey is uneventful or there is not some damage to my wheelchair or hand-bike.

Normally I get to be the first on and last off a plane, which is pragmatic and kinder on your nerves, but I’ve often been forgotten and left till last. It can be quite humiliating, getting dragged through a cabin full of people in the straitjacket of an aisle chair, enduring those “God, I hope it’s not me” stares, as I feebly apologise for their inconvenience.

Once on the plane you can forget about using the toilet, so I use a catheter or urinate into a bottle. Forward-planning normally gets me a window seat and some privacy, but it is certainly far from ideal.

The treatment can be far from good when you land. In Nice airport in France, I was forcibly removed from my chair to be weighed – yes, weighed. They insisted it was policy. It was outrageous. I’ve been carried down aircraft stairs on numerous occasions, strapped down in an aisle chair feeling as if I’m doing a Hannibal Lecter impersonation in The Silence of the Lambs. It is scary and undignified as the special assistants struggle to get you off the plane and load you on to the bus with the other passengers, who have witnessed the entire drama and just want to get on with their holidays.

Maybe it’s a disabled thing, but my independence is important to me and my chair is pivotal to that, so I will always wheel up to the door of the plane like Justin did. Also, there’s less chance of damage to your chair as it should be taken directly to the hold and secured safely to be returned on landing.

However, as we have seen with Levene and other wheelchair users, that’s not always the case. I would have turned the air blue if someone had lost my chair or badly damaged it. Levene’s torturous path dragging himself through the airport would have been a bridge too far for me. He is an international wheelchair athlete – my body wouldn’t have allowed it. But I understand his sentiment and fully support him bringing the airport and airline to task. He initially threatened to sue Luton airport.

Frank Gardner, the BBC correspondent, broadcast his 90-minute delay when he had to wait, along with embarrassed cabin staff, for special assistance to get him off the plane at Heathrow when his wheelchair was lost. However, there are probably many other cases where wheelchair uses are badly treated and made to feel like second-class citizens.

It’s a simple task to understand someone’s needs if they are communicated clearly and to then treat those people with respect, but there definitely seems to be a problem when it comes to dealing with us.

The problem doesn’t seem to be restricted to the airline industry, either. Anne Wafula Strike’s story of being forced to wet herself on a train because the disabled toilet wasn’t working was as distressing as it was inspiring, but it forced the rail industry to take a look at its customer service to wheelchair users. Perhaps it’s time that every rail carriage had a wheelchair space and an accessible toilet. At the moment, each train only has two wheelchair spaces, on average, and they have to be booked in advance to avoid disappointment. It’s certainly not enough considering there are an estimated 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK – it’s not as though we haven’t got jobs or lives to lead.

Levene’s protest might have seemed extreme, even over the top, but every cause needs a catalyst to ignite it. He has now dropped legal action against the airport but his action forced the issue on to a front page and led to a discussion on ITV’s Good Morning Britain with Paralympian and life peer Tanni Grey-Thompson, who has been tweeting about her experiences of being left on trains. And Luton airport has taken a recent decision to introduce 10 self-propelled wheelchairs. Perhaps all disabled people should take a leaf out of Levene’s book when faced with a similar dilemma. If we all posted videos of being stuck on planes and trains, it would force the airlines and train companies to change and improve their policies. We should be standing or sitting up for our rights more. It could help change society for the better.

James Coke is a writer. He blogs at thedisabledchef.com

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