Ausnew Home Care | Budget airlines make it hard for people with disabilities to travel, but Australian tourist sights get top marks

Budget airlines make it hard for people with disabilities to travel, but Australian tourist sights get top marks

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As a power wheelchair user with a complex physical disability, I've never been on a plane.

Not even when I travelled across Australia from rural Western Australia to the remote opal mining town of Lightning Ridge in New South Wales.

Travel is a basic right that everyone is entitled to, but as a person with spinal muscular atrophy or SMA type 1, it's not something I can just decide to do.

It's not that airlines don't compensate for passengers with disabilities, but rather that the compensations aren't always good enough.

Limited places for wheelchairs, discriminatory staff attitudes like being asked to walk through security checks, a lack of accessible bathrooms and damage to equipment are just some of the reasons people with disabilities often choose to stay home.

When I went to Lightning Ridge, I had to travel because I was looking for dinosaur bones as part of a citizen science fossil dig, but I wasn't comfortable with flying.

Eleanor Beidatsch with her sister Kirsten. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
Eleanor Beidatsch sorts through rocks and dirt looking for fossils at Lightning Ridge.(Supplied)

When I travel, my family or support workers have to come with me and we take a small hospital's worth of equipment just to cover my basic needs – too much to take as carry-on luggage aboard a plane.

So to reach NSW, we instead crossed the desert in a 1986 campervan, which we remodelled for wheelchair access and so it could safely carry my equipment.

It took a month to get there and back again, and while the experience was amazing, it would have been easier if I could have flown.

Some airlines better than others

Samantha Connor is a disability rights activist with Perth-based organisation People with Disability Australia and spends a lot of time flying internationally for work conferences.

She has muscular dystrophy and ADHD and uses a wheelchair for mobility.

A woman with red hair and glasses seated outdoors.
Samantha Connor says some airlines have a limit of two wheelchairs per flight.(ABC News: Glyn Jones)

Ms Connor said all airlines had some discriminatory attitudes or protocols, but the budget airlines were the most difficult to use.

"It really does depend on your disability and also on the airline," she said.

"The budget airlines usually have a limit of two wheelchairs per flight, which is extraordinarily discriminatory."

Qantas airlines have more equitable arrangements for passengers with disabilities, and their A380 planes don't have a limit on the number of wheelchairs they can carry.

Qantas plane taking off.
The Qantas A380 planes, which are used for long haul journeys, do not have a limit on the number of wheelchairs. (AAP)

A Qantas spokesperson said: "It is important for customers to let us know in advance of travel to ensure we can make appropriate arrangements."

Qantas protocols also allow disabled passengers to bring up to two pieces of mobility equipment as carry-on luggage for free, provided they don't exceed the safety limit of 32 kilograms or can travel in an upright position.

Their staff also undertake specific training to assist passengers with disabilities, and they have an Eagle hoist to assist in transfers to help passengers into their seats.

Virgin airlines have similar policies with a focus on staff training, as well as a "guest assistance team" that supports passengers with disabilities to travel safely through the airport and onto flights.

"We continue to offer wheelchair assistance, however, the number of guests we can accommodate on any specific flight can vary depending upon a range of operational and safety requirements," Virgin said.

"We encourage all guests who require wheelchair assistance to get in touch with our guest contact centre so we can do all we can to accommodate their specific needs."

Equipment often damaged in transit

Ms Connor recently returned from a UN Disability Rights Conference in New York where she flew with United Airlines.

She said her wheelchair's brakes were damaged in flight, something she said wasn't uncommon when on an airplane.

"It just comes back broken, and you don't know until you sit in it and wheel yourself," she said.

"I was lucky that I noticed because my brakes didn't work anymore … because the axle's off balance."

United was contacted for comment but didn't respond.

A lot of wheelchairs are damaged in the cargo hold, and it can seriously impact a person's safety and wellbeing.

"There's nothing worse than looking out the window and watching someone dragging your 150 kilo chair down a ramp and it's about to fall off," Ms Connor said.

Damage to wheelchairs and other mobility aids is especially common when travelling internationally, a problem disabled American travel blogger Cory Lee is all too familiar with.

Cory sits on top of a camel
Travel blogger Cory Lee says he constantly worries about his equipment being damaged in transit.(Supplied)

He has had his equipment damaged on multiple occasions when flying, and in one instance his power wheelchair was broken in the cargo hold, and he couldn't drive home when they landed.

"My mum had to actually push my wheelchair out of the airport," he said.

"And it's something that I constantly worry about, just like the mental anguish of sitting on the flight and [being] constantly worried … if my wheelchair is going to be working once we arrive."

Cory Lee pictured in front of the River Salzach in Salzburg
Mr Lee does not let his disability stop him from travelling the world. (Supplied)

Mr Lee also has SMA and has visited 39 countries on all seven continents, including Antarctica.

Bathroom access a major barrier 

While damaged equipment is a common problem on planes, Mr Lee said bathroom access was an even greater barrier.

Cory Lee pictured in front of the Taj Mahal
Cory Lee says aeroplane lavatories are too small for him and his wheelchair.(Supplied)

He said aeroplane toilets were too small to fit him, his wheelchair and a companion.

"So I usually have to dehydrate myself and like stop eating a couple days before I fly," he said.

"I mean, in the 21st century, I should not have to be saying that."

Qantas airlines have attempted to address this issue by building their lavatories with collapsible walls, so two toilets can be turned into one to fit wheelchairs.

Destination not always accessible

People with disabilities make up around 20 per cent of the population and have as much interest in travel as anyone.

Even though some airlines compensate where possible to make the journey safe and easy, the destination isn't always as inclusive.

Kelvin Cook lives in Mount Barker, in WA's Great Southern region, and he and his wife love to travel abroad.

Kelvin pictured with a prosthetic leg at the ocean
Kelvin Cook says the barriers to travelling are different depending on what mobility aid he has. (Supplied)

He has travelled as a wheelchair user and a prosthetic user, and he said the barriers were different depending on which mobility aid he had.

Mr Cook said visiting America was a positive experience and the public transport was very accommodating, but his experience of the London Underground could not have been more different.

He said there were lifts in some of the Tube stations, but not all of them.

"So lucky I had people with me that could lift the chair up and … I had to go backwards up the stairs on my hands and bum, as I never had my crutches with me as I was in a wheelchair," he said.

Fortunately, his prosthetic leg has made travel much easier.

Kelvin Cook pictured with his prosthetic leg outside The Last Pub in Ireland
Mr Cook uses a specialised osteo-integrated prosthetic leg.(Supplied)

Tick of approval, but risks remain

Australia was one of the first countries Mr Lee visited and he said it made him "fall in love with travel blogging".

"I think that Australia was honestly one of the most accessible places I've ever been," he said.

"I didn't see a tonne of the country, I definitely want to come back and see more parts of Australia. 

"But in Sydney and Melbourne, I thought that accessibility was fantastic."

Cory pictured in front of the Sydney Opera House
Mr Lee would like to see more of Australia after giving Sydney top marks for accessibility.(Supplied)

Despite improvements to travel for people with disabilities, I'm still not comfortable flying.

The risk to my highly specialised and essential wheelchair is too great, and I still travel with too much equipment to choose two pieces to take for free.

Travelling with a disability is so difficult I'm not sure that I will be able to attend my honours graduation for university next year, because I can't just hop on a plane and fly to New South Wales.


Source: ABC

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