June 9, 2013
Dear Air Canada,
My name is Christine Roschaert, from Cornwall, Ontario. I am the director of Nepal Deafblind Project where I volunteer in Kathmandu, Nepal and am currently in Canada to visit my family and conduct motivational speaking engagements. I am involved with several well-known Deafblind international and national organizations and volunteer my time with various Deafblind communities. I am a frequent traveller, especially on Air Canada and on its sister company flights and have been a member of Aeroplan for the past 15 years. I used Air Canada the whole time I was commuting back and forth during holidays from university in Washington, DC to Ottawa. I am an advocate for Deafblind persons around the world and have travelled to 50 countries thus far, and despite my disabilities it has proven challenging but there has not been a serious barrier…. until now.
I am Deaf and legally blind, diagnosed with Usher Syndrome – Retinitis Pigmentosa since childhood. RP is a disease of the retina that deteroriates peripheral vision, reducing the field in a tunnel-vision like image until at a certain point in life, the tunnel vision is reduced to no sight at all, rendering the person afflicted with RP completely blind. Persons who are born Deaf or late-Deafened and diagnosed with RP are categorized with Usher Syndrome as it puts Deafness and RP together, an unique combination.
Today, I see nothing out of my left eye due to a cataract surgery accident, and I only have 2 degrees of tunnel vision remaining in my right eye. I am also profoundly Deaf. But that has not stopped me from hopping on more than 1,000 flights in my entire life, even today. What matters is that the disability assistance teams at airports are highly trained to guide blind persons and knowledgable in ways to communicate with Deaf people and have a good understanding of assisting Deafblind persons in the case they should travel alone. I have had minor problems around the world – even in Nigeria, Morocco, Thailand, China.
However, was I never more humiliated and put into a situation that caused me more hardship than my experience on June 7, 2013 with Air Canada not only at my origin departure airport, Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier Airport, but in Calgary and Edmonton as well. The events of the day has clearly traumatized me, not because of my “inability” to travel, but because people who worked for Air Canada strongly believed I couldn’t travel alone.
I want to share my story of the events of the day that transpired, and it is a formal complaint against Air Canada because not only were my rights stripped, it was my pride and ability taken away from me as well.
In the early morning of June 7, my 70-year old father, Robert Roschaert, drove me to Ottawa for my flight to Edmonton. We arrived at the airport around 6am and I got my ticket and checked in my two bags without a problem. My father offered to guide me through the security checkpoint as it was allowed for family members or friends to guide me through to the gate because it was an in-country flight, not international. My father uses sign language so it was a bit easier to communicate when we got through. The lady at the ticket gate did not mention any problems or foreshadowed what would happen next. She gave my father a pass for security to go through with me and once I was dropped off, he would leave.
My father got me through security with no problem. As I got settled in the waiting area of Gate 15, he asked the boarding gate agent to watch me and guide me on the plane as he had to leave – his car was parked in the disability section and we said our goodbyes. I waited 20 minutes, reading on my iPad. The lady at the gate escorted me through to the plane, and I was getting settled in my seat when a tall, stocky man with grey hair came up to me, he was still talking on his CB radio when he motioned for me to get up and go with him. I said I was okay, but he was not pleased with me and gestured “come”. I didn’t understand him and offered to write back and forth as that was the best way to communicate with me but he declined and got my bags out of the overhead compartment. Confused, I suspected he was an air marshal or an officer of the law, so I obliged and left with him – even the flight crew looked confused. I had been the first person to get in the plane, so there wasn’t anyone on the plane. As he walked me back to the gate area, people looked at me and gawked. I felt humiliated as he told me to sit down and he was still talking on his CB radio and left me alone. People walked through the gate to the plane. Five minutes later, a man with dark hair and glasses, roughly 5’7” or so, came up to me and asked if I could read lips and I said no. He didn’t know what to do, so I offered my iPad to communicate. He was the manager of Air Canada for that shift. He explained that I did not have MEDICAL CLEARANCE to travel alone. This was new to me. I said I didn’t sign up for the Air Canada Free Assistance Flyer program because it would mean I would forfeit my right to travel alone. I depended on the trained professionals knowledgable on disabilities to ensure I got to my point of arrival safely. That was enough. But the manager insisted I cannot get on the DIRECT flight to Edmonton. I had a speaking engagement in Edmonton I had to make, so this was not acceptable. He did not go into details on the policy, nor did he explain to me what would happen. He just asked me for my father’s number and left to make arrangements. I was left in tears because this was the first time I was BANNED and kicked out of a plane. My pride took a hit. The plane I was supposed to be on, left its space and flew off without me.
The man came back and said it was possible that I would be on the 8 30am flight to Calgary, changing planes for Edmonton, arriving at 1:55pm. I had to notify my hosts in Edmonton. I did not like this because I had requested for a direct flight – less hassle of changing and makes it easier for me to travel. He gave me my tickets and asked the lady at the gate to escort me to Gate 25 for my flight to Calgary.
He later came back just before my flight to Calgary and he said it’s a go. Without explaining to me why I was suddenly allowed to go on this one, but not the direct flight to Edmonton. He seemed to be in a hurry and said “no problem”. I wanted his name and he just left without giving me his name. He was nice to me, but I didn’t appreciate lack of information as I was left clueless.
That was not the only problem I had with Air Canada that day. As soon as I got off the plane in Calgary, I waited for my asisstance to come to me but no one did. All I could see was the person responsible for baggage, some clean up crew. I asked the stewardess after a bit of an awkward silence waiting for my assistance, where he/she was? The stewardess pointed to the guy standing back on the corridor wall, and he was looking at me. He had the assistance tag. I had my white cane – an obvious sign I was blind – and he still did not come to me naturally. I had to “sic” him to come to me. He put me in a wheelchair. He seemed so awkward with me it made me uneasy. Often I travelled and met professional assistances who knew what they were doing. But not him. As soon as we got to Gate 1 for my flight to Edmonton, I was feeling parched and dehydrated and was beginning to get a headache. I asked him if I could go get some water at a nearby vendor, and he told me in a way that reminded me of how my parents would scold me “No, no, sit there”… I explained that I NEEDED water and he just ignored me. I got angry and got up from my wheelchair and walked to the vendor, bought my own water, and back to the wheelchair. He left without saying goodbye and I waited one hour for my flight to leave for Edmonton.
Then… when I got to Edmonton, I was greeted by another man, bald and stocky with glasses and he was wearing a bright neon yellow jacket. I wasn’t sure if he was assigned to me but it seemed like he was. He brought me to the baggage claim area and as I asked him where could I pick up my two checked luggage, he shrugged and I gave him my luggage stubs. He left. And I never saw him again. I waited for 10 long minutes until another man, working at the Baggage Claim/Lost Baggage office saw me waiting with my cane and offered to help. Kind man found my luggage, and tried to figure out where I could meet my friends. Not long after, my friends met me.
So, all in one day, I was kicked out of a plane, rendered speechless when I was allowed on the next one, uninformed as to why it happened, then was guided by someone untrained to guide a blind person and was chided for wanting water, and then left alone by myself in the baggage area by someone who claimed to work for disability assistance. Never have I been ashamed to fly on Air Canada or humiliated as a person or felt so mistreated as a Deafblind person. Air Canada represents my country, one I have always been proud of living in, because of its strides to accomodate persons with disabilities.
Much effort has been put into the Free Assistance Flyer program by Air Canada and WESTJET, however, the attitudes and oppressive tactics and untrained disability assistance and AC staff truly put your company a notch down. Many Deafblind people, even other persons with disabilities, have complained about Air Canada’s performance in that regard to supporting travellers with disabilities and the events that transpired on June 7 proved that. There are many Deafblind people who choose to travel alone, and if provided highly-trained assistance at the airports and flight crew in midair, it is possible for Deafblind to have the option to travel alone. Some prefer to bring their own assistance, thus the program you have for free assistance fliers works. But there’s no choice for independent Deafblind travellers like me.
I was not aware of the policy requiring Deafblind travelers to get medical clearance until after the fact. A friend sent me the link to your website. I last traveled on Air Canada this March from Washington, DC and it went without a hitch. I was not asked to provide my medical information. I wonder when this policy was installed? Was the Canadian National Institute of the Blind or any Deafblind organization in Canada properly notified of this, so they could inform their clients/members? We all know that a majority of travellers don’t go through pages and pages of policy but it would have been a sensible thing for the manager in Ottawa to provide this information to me prior to my departure to Calgary. That much I deserved. Not to be left in the dark about what happened earlier. I have had very minor problems with Air Canada in the past and it has always been a pleasant flight because every time I fly with Air Canada, the flight crew makes my time very comfortable and pleasant.
I am filing this complaint with Air Canada for humiliation, stress, mistreatment, communication barriers, unnecessary hardship and stranding a disabled person in an unfamiliar environment.
I am more capable of travelling in air and ground and water than many people – or so I was told, even when I have used my white cane in the past eight years. I strive to put down barriers in order to be able to travel freely and independently. What happened on June 7 oppressed that right to independence and for that, I feel violated. I have been travelling by air since I was 12 years old, so that puts me in the same league as seasoned travellers, having done this for 20+ years. I would like to think that my experience and expertise is to be taken very seriously.
Until this matter is resolved and policy is changed, and staff / assistance heighten their sensitivity training for persons with disabilities, I will refrain from travelling on Air Canada and its fleet. It is of utmost importance that the company of Air Canada recognize this and forges ahead in ensuring its staff, crew and assistance teams are competent and well-trained to serve its disabled travellers.
I would be willing to offer my expertise as a consultant for Deafblind travellers in matters that concern them and offer insight on training exercises to better the service we receive from Air Canada’s staff, crew and assistance teams.
Serious changes need to be made – with involvement from Deafblind, Deaf and other disability groups themselves, and not by non-disabled persons who made the previous policies.
You can contact my father at the phone number or email me directly at the email I have both provided above.
It is my request that you respond to my letter promptly so that we can forge ahead and create a safer, comfortable way for persons with disabilities and Deafblind people to travel independently and for me to acknowledge that you have heard me loud and clear.
Thank you. Merci beaucoup.