Disabled travel: Willing and able

28 Sep 2012 by Jenny Southan

Jenny Southan investigates the challenges faced by disabled travellers, and how they overcome them.

There is no better example than the Paralympics of how ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things – and all in spite of potentially huge physical limitations.

However, whether one is a God-like Paralympian or a mere mortal, the process of getting around proves a unique challenge for anyone who is disabled – be it because they have reduced mobility or impaired senses.

One poster on our online forum (businesstraveller.com/discussion), Bath_VIP, writes: “I am registered blind, with some limited vision, and partially deaf. I have my own consultancy business and am a frequent traveller on trains and buses. What I hate is suddenly feeling someone grabbing my arm without warning and then trying to steer me in a direction I don’t want to go.”

The difficulties one might come up against if reliant on a wheelchair, for example, can be hard to imagine for an able-bodied person, but as revealed by a BBC report in August by security correspondent Frank Gardner – who was shot eight years ago in Saudi Arabia and whose legs are consequently partially paralysed – many could be reduced by improved staff training, logistics and design.

As Gardner successfully manages to continue his career, and trips overseas, the kinds of experiences he has faced range from being given a piggy-back up the steps of a plane by a co-pilot, to avoiding drinking anything on a flight to avoid going to the toilet. And as his video story on a trip to Stockholm shows, numerous things can go awry – not only does his wheelchair go missing on arrival, meaning he has to wait on the plane until they find it, but his walking frame gets accidentally left behind.

“Air travel for me is very different now but you overcome, you improvise, you adapt,” Gardner says. “It’s really all about the attitude of the airline and the ground handling staff. Mostly people are really friendly and helpful and will do everything they can to make it easier for you.”

Still, like Bath_VIP, he thinks sometimes they can be overly tactile when trying to offer assistance. “The ground handling staff are always very good at trying to mollycoddle [but] what movement and mobility I have got left I want to be able to [use], so I am always telling people to back off,” he explains.

Without the aid of his walking frame, Gardner continues into Stockholm, where he checks into the Scandic Victoria Tower hotel, one of the most disabled-friendly in Europe. In reception, there is a dual level desk so staff can greet him face-to-face, while upstairs there are bedroom doors that open automatically, electronically adjustable beds and a spacious wet room with movable rails.

But even with all this, there are obvious oversights – when he is sitting in his wheelchair, he can’t see out of the window, and there is nowhere in reach to plug in the kettle. “This feels like a room designed by someone standing up – it doesn’t feel like it has been validated by somebody in a wheelchair,” he says.

One design company trying to improve flying for wheelchair users is Priestmangoode (priestmangoode.com). After working in the aviation sector for about 15 years, it identified a need to reduce the inconvenience of transferring between an airline seat and a narrow onboard wheelchair.

The Air Access seat (pictured overleaf) looks similar to any other economy product but doubles as a wheelchair by detaching from a fixed base. It can then be used outside the aircraft to transfer the passenger back into their own chair, before being taken back on board.

Although no deals have yet been made to roll it out, Paul Priestman, the company’s founding director, says: “I think if there was interest we could develop it quite quickly. From a financial point of view it has to be an incentive [for the airline], and there are quite a lot of statistics about the disabled pound and how that is going to be a growing market.”

Online poster Andrewyoung1 agrees: “The business case for getting things right for disabled people is clear – if you don’t, you’re effectively limiting your customer base. My colleague would rather take the train to Scotland from London than fly because of the barrage of abuse his wheelchair gets when passing through baggage services.” Priestman adds that the Air Access seat could be useful not just for disabled travellers but also for elderly people, for example, or someone who has broken a leg skiing.

Mike Muller, head of?interline and intermodal policy at IATA (the International Air Transport Association), says: “A few years ago I had a knee operation and had to travel on planes with a walking stick – it’s true that until you are a PRM [passenger with reduced mobility] yourself, you don’t really know the ups and downs of it. I have a lot more sympathy now.”

Forum poster Ian_From_HKG writes of his experience travelling on crutches after foot surgery: “On the whole I didn’t find the airport too difficult. I had far more problems out and about in the city, and one thing I would say is that although people do tend to give space to those in wheelchairs, they seem to have a blind spot for people on crutches. I cannot tell you how many times people would walk so close that they would kick them out from under me.”

For those with reduced mobility travelling by air, it is worth visiting direct.gov.uk for guidance as a carrier’s responsibilities are complex. For example, cabin crew must help transport PRMs to the toilet with an onboard wheelchair if requested, but they are not allowed to try to lift them. They will not grant permission to sit by an emergency exit because of safety issues, and if the passenger is not self-reliant, the airline will require them to travel with an assistant or allow them to bring a service animal. Muller says: “In the US there have been cases of people bringing on board a reptile, a snake and even a miniature pony.”

On the ground, Heathrow processed more than 2,800 wheelchair users during the Paralympics, and although many of the measures it implemented were temporary, some are permanent. Nick Cole, head of Olympic and Paralympic planning and operations at BAA, admits that a year or so ago, its facilities were “poor” but it has “used the Paralympics as a vehicle to improve service”. As well as installing additional lifts and hoists in Terminals 1 and 4, it has added extra accessible washrooms and taken steps to ensure that most wheelchairs users are transported to and from the aircraft doors with their own chair.

Still, other airports and airlines are far from consistent in the support they offer, so preparation is essential, as is knowledge of your rights. Leading the way in legislation for disabled travellers is the US, where a wheelchair user does not need to pre-notify the airline or airport as help will always be available.

James Fremantle, senior policy adviser for consumers and markets at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – the UK enforcement body for EU regulation and complaint handling – says: “The obligation is to provide the same level of service to all passengers whether they advise them or not. The airports have to fund themselves to a higher level to make sure they always have someone to help.”

Outside the US, disabled passengers travelling on an EU airline or from an EU airport are advised to contact their carrier at least 48 hours before their flight to inform them of their needs, to give them enough time to arrange staff and equipment. If a passenger has booked at the last minute, they are still entitled to help but may not get the level of service hoped for. At worst, they might be denied boarding because there can be a limit to how many PRMs they can have on board, for instance.

Fremantle says: “The only reason an airline could refuse someone would be for a safety reason or if the aircraft was small and they couldn’t get that many wheelchairs into the hold. Most airlines are pretty good about identifying issues so it’s rare that you would have too many PRMs, but if it does happen the airline has an obligation to get you on the next flight free of charge and put you up in a hotel if it is overnight.”

What protection PRMs are entitled to depends entirely on the laws that are in place in the country of departure (or that are applied to the airline by the country they are based in) – as Fremantle points out, as there is no international legislation, there are no global standards. The UK’s Equality Act, which is enshrined by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (equalityhumanrights.com), demands that passengers are not discriminated against, harassed or victimised.

A statement provided by the Commission says: “Anti-discrimination laws allow passengers to complain to travel providers, take unresolved complaints to an enforcement body, or take cases to court. Such laws exist around the world, but are most likely in developed countries. Examples of discrimination include passengers being refused travel owing to their disability, wheelchair users being left in airport corridors without assistance and providers charging for carrying medical or mobility equipment.” It adds: “Very few cases go to court, as it is a time-consuming and stressful experience.”

However, there is a major loophole. The Equality Act applies to airports but not airlines, which means cases of disabled travellers being refused boarding continue to happen on a regular basis. Gardner was refused boarding earlier in the year by Kenya Airways on the basis that his walking frame was too big, while photographer Giles Duley (see previous page) mentions an issue with the same carrier.

Last year, Shuaib Chalklen, the UN’s special rapporteur on disability, was also refused boarding – this time by Swiss for a short flight between London and Geneva. This was on the grounds that he was an unaccompanied wheelchair user and would not be able to use the onboard washrooms. Chalklen was reported as saying it was “absurd” – frustration that must be shared by the many disabled but less high-profile travellers who do not get the publicity when the system fails them.

Behind the scenes, IATA’s Resolution 700, which has been around since 1952, offers guidance for all member airlines on how to deal with PRMs, especially when they are interlining (visit bit.ly/S7PpM0 to download a PDF). Additional protection for those travelling on EU carriers and out of EU airports – Regulation 1107 – was introduced in 2006 after Ryanair was taken to court for charging disabled travellers £18 each way for wheelchairs. Ryanair’s actions were deemed “unlawful” in January 2004, but shortly after, it started adding a 50p per passenger levy to cover the cost of providing chairs instead.

Today, all airlines covered by Regulation 1107 also have to allow PRMs to carry two items of mobility equipment free of charge, but they are not required to pay full compensation for loss or damage. Fremantle says: “Wheelchairs getting damaged is a real issue because the liability of the airline is quite limited – £1,000 is the maximum a passenger would get back if they didn’t have good insurance.” (A high-tech electric wheelchair can cost up to £16,000, with the average being £3,500.)

For those who are not disabled, remember that the next time you grumble about the stresses and strains of travel, there are people out there overcoming far greater hurdles.


Giles Duley, humanitarian photographer

When Duley was on foot patrol with the US 75th Cavalry Regiment in Afghanistan in February last year, he stepped on an IED. He lost his left arm and both legs and spent six months in hospital, but recently returned to work, covering the Paralympics. This autumn sees him embarking on his first two trips abroad since the accident.

“I started thinking about going back to work the same day I got blown up. It’s been my only real goal, actually. I remember thinking when it happened – because I never lost consciousness – I still have my eyesight and my right hand.

You just have to get on with it. There is no way that losing one’s legs is worth any photo but the principle of why I was there I still completely believe in – to tell the stories of people who are suffering and going through things we don’t understand. I am in a unique position to tell [those stories] because of my personal experience now.

Crowds are difficult because when you are on prosthetic legs you can’t really stop suddenly. It’s about getting the momentum – you have to push the leg in front and then push yourself over it. When people bump into you or stop in front of you that is tricky. The Olympic Park was a nightmare because it is such a big area for getting around.

I am going to Kenya on holiday next week and am using it as an opportunity to be in an environment that is dry and dusty and hot to see how that affects the legs and my ability to get around, and give it a go at travelling a distance. You can go on forums and check stuff but it ends up scaring you more because you read about all the difficulties people have.

The obvious problems for me are walking around airports because of the distances, so I will probably have to use a wheelchair. Then, because of the nature of prosthetic legs, which stick out more than your normal legs do when sitting down, there is the issue of how tight it is going to be in the seat. We asked to be in a row by the bulkhead but Kenya Airways wouldn’t let us book that.

We also asked about getting a wheelchair in both terminals and were told to arrange that when we got there. I know of other amputees that have had problems – one has been told they need to pay a supplement to have appropriate seating. [After Business Traveller contacted Kenya Airways about this, it booked Duley and his companion bulkhead seats and a wheelchair each way. It also said it would investigate the matter.]

Prosthetic limbs are designed to fit tightly because they have to feel like they are in full contact with your body. So I have the same issue as when you take your shoes off – your feet swell and it’s hard to get them back on. Wearing them all day can be painful as they are held on by a silicone sleeve, so it gets incredibly hot and uncomfortable.

I don’t really know about security – I have been on Eurostar and everyone there was pretty fine about it. But I have heard stories of airports needing to X-ray the limbs so make you take them off [they do have the right to demand this] and it’s quite a process of getting them on and off.

The main thing it all comes down to is mobility. In a sense it is incredibly life changing and the injuries incredibly serious, but at the same time they are not the sort of things that change you as a person. I have not lost any of my senses, I am not deaf or blind, I still have a sense of touch, my mind is still fully there. That kind of damage can change you completely. I actually do believe that sometimes having constrictions can make you more creative. I just see it as a challenge.”


Amar Latif, founder and director of Traveleyes Traveleyes (traveleyes-international.com) is an international air tour operator set up in 2004 to arrange trips for both blind and sighted travellers, with the latter acting as the eyes for the former by describing the environment around them. Latif lost his sight when he was a teenager and travels regularly. “Airports can insist blind travellers sit in a wheelchair, which is frustrating and humiliating because our legs work and we can walk perfectly fine. Once you are on the plane there are problems regarding the entertainment system. The technology exists but they don’t put it into action – you can’t watch a film because they are not audio described; you can’t control the options because you can’t flick through the channels. Even with a remote you can feel the buttons but can’t see what you are doing. On most flights the crew are amazing. But when you are on a change-over, for example, the assistance would never take you around the airport for a coffee or to go shopping, they just take you and park you in a waiting room where you sit for five hours and then they come and pick you up. So it’s not ideal. The most important thing is planning. These days technology is brilliant – I have an iPhone. Apple needs to be commended because it builds accessibility in. I can go into settings and turn on the voice-over and download an app about trains and it tells me when they are going and from which platform. The attitude to disability varies in different parts of the world. The road structures may not be there in developing countries but what I find is there are a lot of sensory experiences and people are really friendly. In terms of accessibility, you can find well-placed braille in lifts whereas sometimes you can go to the world’s most ostentatious places, such as Dubai, and find there is no braille. When I travel, people won’t talk to me – they will talk to my assistant or the taxi driver because they think: ‘How can this guy be in charge when he is blind?’ I crossed the jungle in Nicaragua for a BBC programme called Beyond Boundaries in 2005. I went from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It’s 355km. I was initially scared but it was just so exciting. As soon as we got into the jungle it was suddenly dark – that posed no threat to me but the other guys that could see were a bit more concerned. Travelling builds your confidence. The greatest thing you can have as a blind person is independence, and there is nothing that beats that feeling. There are so many great things to experience and people to meet. It is life-changing.”


If you need to make a complaint, contact the CAA:
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