Low-cost airline Spicejet brought new oppobrium to the term "no frills" this weekend, offloading a teacher with cerebral palsy from a flight from Kolkata to Goa after the pilot insisted she was not fit to travel alone.
That's just the tip of the iceberg for the disabled in India. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, are the results of birth defects and grisly accidents as in-your-face as here in India. But despite the constant reminder -- at every traffic light, street corner and shrine -- this country makes almost no allowances. You're lucky if you find a single competently designed wheelchair ramp in the capital, let alone the hinterland. And it's an open secret that finding a job is nearly impossible for anybody with even the mildest physical deformity.
According to a report by Zee News, aviation rules that came into effect in May 2008 specifically state that "no airline shall refuse to carry persons with disability or persons with reduced mobility and their assistive aids/devices, escorts and guide dogs including their presence in the cabin, provided such persons or their representatives, at the time of booking and/or check-in for travel, inform the airlines of their requirement."
That said, until recently, airlines had no method to bring passengers who are unable to walk on their own aboard - apart from the humiliating practice of getting a burly chap to carry them in his arms. And I once heard that even former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had very bad knees, was occasionally lifted to India's version of Air Force One in the catering lift. (That story may well be apocryphal).
But things may be changing. The outrage and disgust that has greeted the Spicejet gaffe -- apparently, the pilot thought that the woman, who is head of advocacy and disability studies at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP), was mentally disabled and therefore not capable of taking care of herself -- suggests that people are beginning to wake up.
Spicejet has already announced that it is going to conduct a probe of the incident, a typical public relations move. But the airline (accidentally) picked the wrong disabled person to boot off. According to the Times of India, the IICP is taking the snafu as an opportunity to bring various discriminatory practices to the attention of the government and human rights advocates.
"This is not the first time that a challenged passenger has been harassed, " said IICP executive director Reena Sen.