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People with disabilities confront travel injustice



Transport is a necessary part of the daily grind for the general population. Whether it be making the mad scramble for a bus or train to work, riding a taxi or Uber, or flying interstate or domestically for work or leisure, we're all on the move. Or at least, we'd all like to be on the move.

Rachael Leahcar on International Guide Dog Day in 2018 in Adelaide's Rundle Mall (Instagram: Rachael Leahcar)For disabled individuals, the navigation of public transport is often marred by experiences ranging from mild irritation at someone failing to shift for someone getting on a bus with a cane or guide dog, to outright discriminatory practices of not being able to board the transport at all. In the past week, a number of these practices at the extreme end have garnered national attention, with mixed reactions to the plight of the individuals experiencing such behaviour.

Monica McGhie was flying from Perth to Canberra via Melbourne in February, when her mobility-assist wheelchair was left behind by QANTAS after it was determined it could not fit the dimensions of the aircraft door. This left her to struggle with a push-wheelchair, severely impacting her ability to move independently and freely. The irony? McGhie was travelling to a media conference in Canberra to campaign for a royal commission into the abuse of people with disabilities.

In a follow-up statement, QANTAS said the dimensions of the wheelchair had not been properly entered into the booking system, and refunded the cost of the airline ticket to McGhie.

The second incident, also widely reported in the media on the same day, was a refusal by an Uber driver in Adelaide to pick up former The Voice finalist Rachael Leahcar, due to her guide dog. The incident left Leahcar, who is legally blind, her dog Ella, and grandmother without a lift until an intervening, kind stranger assisted them to find an alternate ride. Uber responded by refunding the fare.

Finally, Professor Justin Yerbury was refused entry onto a pre-booked holiday on a Royal Caribbean cruise-liner, Explorer of the Seas, because the relevant paperwork he had submitted in November regarding having motor neurone disease did not get passed along to the relevant people, including the medical team onboard. This failure of communication meant he was deemed to pose too much of a 'risk' and therefore, they turned him away. Yerbury is a lecturer in neurodegenerative disorders and is highly regarded for his work in molecular biology. Royal Caribbean issued a refund.

Spanning the length of Australia, the incidents highlight the inherent challenges of undertaking travel which people in the Australian disabled community have long understood. Travel is neither completely accessible nor inclusive, even in 2019. I know this from experience. I have low vision and I'm profoundly deaf in one ear.


"There is a genuine lack of understanding about what my disability entails; what it means to have low vision, and how this might impact my mobility. It doesn't mean I can't walk!"


I've been asked more times than I can count at check-in whether I require a wheelchair to the boarding area; a question that baffles me, since I have pre-registered for assistance based on my low vision, and I know that staff assisting me have access to this information. It illustrates that there is a genuine lack of understanding about what my disability entails; what it means to have low vision, and how this might impact my mobility. It doesn't mean I can't walk!

Often, this lack of understanding continues, as I am led by a sighted guide with unnerving, unsafe practices — pulled by the arm, pushed at the shoulder, led in silence and only detecting turns when the guide suddenly veers left or right. By the time I reach my gate, train platform, bus stop or Uber rank, I'm often highly anxious or outright distressed. Alternatively, I'm occasionally assisted and then forgotten, having to find my own way to whatever transport I was hoping to get on, or off.

Once, my traveling companion was asked in front of me whether I 'can walk without that stick' to get through security at the airport. This left me quite angry — both the assumption that I did not have the capacity to speak for myself, and the lack of understanding — again! — about my disabilities.

In one incident on a domestic flight to Melbourne, I had my white cane — my 'eyes' in situations where I am unfamiliar with the terrain or in crowded environments — taken away from me and put into an overhead locker. My cane is an extension of myself. It left me feeling highly vulnerable, having to rely on others for the duration of the flight to take me up and down the corridor to the toilets. This might seem like a minor incident, except it was one of my first experiences of flying on my own for business purposes and I was already feeling highly anxious.

In all of the incidents, the companies respond after the fact to the distress, inconvenience, and barriers that they have created. Issuing refunds and responding to the incidents after they have garnered media attention implies an understanding that they have indeed contributed to the systemic failure to provide accessible and inclusive transport options.

Hopefully the people who can make domestic travel experiences across all forms of transport a stress-free, accessible experience, will listen to such stories, consider policy changes in their organisations and make training available to staff, with resources prepared in consultation with people with lived experience. I, for one, would welcome the consultation.



Jane BrittJane Britt works in various roles across the disability sector with background education in psychology. She is currently a business transformation graduate working for Vision Australia, a freelance writer/disability consultant for the Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training, and president of Achilles Brisbane.

Main image: Rachael Leahcar on International Guide Dog Day in 2018 in Adelaide's Rundle Mall (Instagram: Rachael Leahcar)

Topic tags: Jane Britt, travel, disability, discrimination



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Existing comments

I would venture to guess that people with disabilities, their families and carers are struck with the differences between the way things are and the way things ought to be. Transport being one vital area where this is played out every day. My daughter's family has on order a vehicle which is wheelchair friendly made overseas by Volkswagen. This is an expensive purchase for the family but very necessary. Transport providers need to wake up and do better.

Pam | 14 March 2019  

I must say Sydney trains are now almost always v.helpful. At many stations one can ask for a ramp, and the station will ring through so that a ramp is waiting where one is going. There are few cities in Australia and fewer cities overseas where this is the case (although I have found Amtrak in the US very helpful.) And the railways, as their signs show, have realised, as few realise, that some who use walkers to get about (as I do), even then cannot stand for long on the one spot. Many churches have become more accessible (though there are not always signs pointing to accessible entries) and my church, St Stephen's, Macquarie Street, is installing a long-needed lift this year. But there are still many about, even at some church functions, who just do not "see" those around them or notice their needs or offer to help.

John Bunyan | 15 March 2019  

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