My vlog details the disappointing events that happened on June 7 in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton with Air Canada and the airport authorities.
28 minutes long, American Sign Language
This transcript was completed by Christine Wilson, an interpreter in the Ottawa area with Sign Language Interpreters Association of Ottawa with contrbutions by Arista Haas, of Edmonton. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Hi my name is Coco, short for Christine Roschaert . I am Deafblind. I want to share my horrendous experience flying from Ottawa to Edmonton on June 7th , 2013. I shall sign in ASL although I would like to express my story in International Sign Language for my friends around the world, however, I am emotional and prefer to express in ASL. Perhaps my story will get captioned or written in text for hearing people and Deaf people worldwide so they too can hear my story.
I was flying to Edmonton in western Canada where I would be giving several presentations to the Deafblind community and the Deaf community.
I have been planning the Edmonton trip for three months and will give presentations with the help of my good friend Merico, president of the EFDB , the Edmonton Fellowship of the Deafblind. All was arranged and I was to have a direct flight to Edmonton at 7 am.
I was up at 4 AM and my father and I drove to the airport and I checked in my two suitcases and got my boarding pass. On flights within Canada, my father has been able to get a pass to accompany me through security and to my departure gate where I then continue on by myself. On this trip, things started off okay. Sometimes I bring friends through security with me at different airports when I am travelling within a country, say from a US city to another US city. They do not fly with me, but accompany me to the gate. It has not been a problem.
My dad and I went through security and arrived at the gate where he would leave me.
We sat down at Gate 15 and after a few moments, my father had to go because he was parked in a designated handicap parking spot. My father spoke to an Air Canada staff person and explained that I was his daughter and was Deafblind and would need some assistance to board the plane. The woman made a note and indicated that there was no problem, the plane was on time for 7AM and was direct to Edmonton and they would ensure I boarded the plane. We said our goodbyes, my father left and I settled in to wait.
At other times, when I travel alone, I ask the airline to call one of their trained assistants for the disabled who then accompanies me through check in and to my gate. This has never been a problem, worldwide, so I assumed, as usual, that all was in order.
When it was time to board the plane, I was guided onto the plane without any complication. I was first to get on the plane and the people in the waiting area watched me go. When I got to my seat, the two female attendants greeted me and they put away my carry on in the overhead. They pointed out my seat and I sat down ready for the flight ahead.
Everything was going well… Until a tall big shouldered man arrived and started talking to me. I indicated that I am Deaf and showed him my boarding pass. He ignored me and started talking on the walkie-talkie and then motioned for me to accompany him. The two attendants informed him that everything was fine. The guy shook his head ‘no’ and talked on his walkie-talkie again. I was confused and wanted to know what was going on. I tried to read the badge on his shoulder. I couldn’t quite catch it, but, I believe it indicated he was an air marshall. Then the attendants took my carry on out of the overhead. The air marshall indicated to me that I had to get off the plane. I was surprised and wondered if I was in some big trouble. I started imaging what it could be: plane trouble, my baggage had been checked and my health foods were suspect, etc. I knew I had no medications. So, I followed the “air marshal” who, judging by his fascial expression, was angry about the situation.
I was very embarrassed as I was being escorted off the plane and back into the waiting area.The same people in the waiting area were still waiting to board the plane and they stared at me. The “air marshal” gestured for me to sit down and so, I sat down and waited for the situation to sort out.
An Air Canada manager, with glasses, dark hair and likely in his 40’s, came up to me and asked me if I could lip read. I said no and gestured that I was Deaf. I opened my iPad and indicated we could communicate in writing.
My flight, by the way, was Air Canada #103 direct from Ottawa to Edmonton at 7AM.
We communicated on the iPad. He explained that the reason they pulled me off the plane was because I did not have a medical clearance to travel alone because of my Deafblindness. He explained it was an Air Canada policy.
I have travelled extensively, worldwide. In fact, this year I checked off the 50th country I have visited and my passport which is two years old, is 2/3 full with many stamps from countries I have visited. I have travelled by plane since the age of 12 and never once have I been denied access to a flight because I am Deafblind. Never once have I been kicked off or removed from a plane. And it was happening to me in Canada, my own country.
Of course I was very upset with the reasoning and shed a few tears, then composed myself and explained that I needed to get on the direct flight to Edmonton, and that there were no other direct flights that day, but the manager said, “ no, sorry, you cannot because of the policy.” I suggested that we could agree that I be put back on the plane and that I would sort it out with Air Canada once I arrived in Edmonton. He refused. I reminded him that we had been communicating just fine and that I have travelled independently without any problems. But there was no change.
Then I recalled that there was a case in the early 2000’s between a Deafblind friend of mine, Eddy Morton, and Air Canada. He is from BC and he was denied boarding a flight because of his Deafblindness and not having a travel companion . The issue was who would pay for the travel assistant, someone like an intervener, who is a sighted guide for the Deafblind person? There was no funding for such a service and so the Deafblind person, themselves, would have to pay for the assistant. Eddy was so incensed that he sued Air Canada. The case went all the way to the BC Supreme Court. He won and Air Canada was ordered to improve their services. This impacted other airlines, like WestJet, in Canada. That is how they developed the policy about the travel companion having a free seat as long as Deafblind travellers sign a form giving medical clearance which would then be approved by an airline.
There is a catch, once you sign the form and register for the program, you are obligated to always have an attendant with you on a flight. For me it would mean I could ask a friend or family member to accompany me when I was travelling. However, as I still have a little sight I want to be free to travel independently. When my Usher Syndrome develops to the point of complete blindness, I reason, then I will register for the program and accept the need for an assistant or companion to travel with me.
I have never signed the form because I felt that I would be signing away MY freedom as an independent traveller.
I asked how this medical clearance issue applied to me, but the manager who was continuing to look into the situation, wouldn’t clarify, so I sat and considered my dilemma. I took a picture of myself, “the angry traveller”. I thought about what was happening to me, here, in Ottawa, my home, in Canada, my own country of all places. This wasn’t Africa, or South America, but my own home! How disappointing!
I let my Edmonton contacts know about the delay.
I was beginning to worry about my nutrition as I am on a special diet for a detox program and cannot eat processed food, and needed something like fruit. I could feel a headache developing.
The manager returned and by communicating via the iPad informed me that I was rebooked for the 8:30 am flight – to Calgary and after a one hour layover, on to Edmonton, arriving at 1:55 PM. My original, direct flight had me arriving at 10 AM. He explained I would be changing to another gate.
I was escorted to the next gate. The manager instructed the next Air Canada staff about the situation. I was exasperated with how things were going. I spotted a Starbucks and indicated to the lady that I would go and get a cup of tea and return immediately. The lady became quite agitated and told me to sit down and to stay put. I wasn’t amused and explained it would be five minutes, but still she gestured for me to stay put. I whipped out my white cane and walked over to the Starbucks and got my tea and, returning to my seat, sat back down. The same manager returned and gave me my boarding pass and new baggage claims and gestured that all was fine with a thumbs up. I asked for his name and tried to hand over the iPad to him but he evaded my requests, spoke with the other staff and walked away.
I realized I needed to remember this person so noted he had dark hair, glasses, was about 5’6’’ and was working between 7-8 AM that day. He was very nice and up until that point very agreeable.
I boarded the Calgary flight without further problems. The flight experience was good. I read, dozed, spoke via IPad with my fellow traveller, a pleasant 80 year old gentleman from India. I was beginning to feel ill as we arrived at our destination.
When the plane arrived, I waited to disembark last, as usual, collected my carry on and got off the plane and into the corridor just outside the plane where I expected to meet an attendant for assistance to persons with disabilities to meet me to escort me to the next gate. I could see cleaning staff and others but no one came forward and so I went back into the plane to ask a flight attendant where the attendant was. She pointed to a man, likely African, standing back against a wall. The attendant had been standing there all along. He had a badge and came forward when I waved as he didn’t seem to recognize my obvious white cane. He had a wheelchair and seemed nervous and awkward with his duties. The flight attendant had to motion to him that it was me needing the assistance. He moved the wheelchair towards me and asked me to sit in it. Although I didn’t need the wheelchair, I cooperated because of how the day was going plus the liability due to the attendant’s awkwardness and seeming lack of knowledge about helping the Deafblind or even just a blind person. I didn’t want to risk a fall or walking into a wall.
The attendant seemed puzzled over where to go but eventually we arrived at the next gate for the flight to Edmonton. My headache was getting worse and I needed a drink of water.There was a vendor nearby so I told the attendant that I wanted to get some water to quench my thirst.
The same attendant gestured “no and stay seated”. He was condescending and I felt that I was being treated like a five year old child. I got mad, stood up and whipped out my white cane again and I walked to the vendor and bought my water and then returned to my seat. People in the waiting area were looking at me and smiled at my obvious defiance of the attendant. He walked away and I sat down, drank my water and looked at my iPad. After a short wait I boarded the plane to Edmonton. Everything went smoothly and as we neared our destination, I hoped that the final part of my trip would go as smoothly. Alas, it was not to be.
I want to emphasize that the flight crew had been great the whole time. They were not the problem at any point in this ordeal. They were courteous, helpful, competent and friendly, giving me the safety instructions, pointing out the washrooms and giving me water etc. However, it was a different story with the Air Canada staff outside the plane. Three horrible experiences in a row, debunking the “third time is a charm” myth!
The day wasn’t going to get better. The attendant for persons with disabilities, in a bright yellow vest, guided me to the baggage area where I gestured to him to explain that I had 2 suitcases. I rummaged for the baggage tags and handed them to him. The attendant didn’t seem to know what to do and nodded his head and walked away.
I waited patiently for a good ten minutes. Looking around I could see that I was alone and there was no sign of the attendant with my baggage. I was upset again and disappointed with the poor service. The attendant had not communicated with me to see if I was ok or to let me know that he was going to look for my bags. Nothing! He just abandoned me. I was beginning to feel apprehensive, when someone tapped on my shoulder – it was someone from the baggage office who had noticed me standing alone and approached me. He tried his best to communicate and figure out what had happened. I told him that I had flown from Ottawa, via Calgary and he went to find my bags in the area where lost luggage etc is kept. He and his colleagues stood around me and figured out by writing where I needed to go. I was escorted to the area of the airport where people wait for their guests to arrive and where my friends, to my great relief, were waiting. I thanked the helpful staff and left, happy to be done with my ordeal.
Air Canada may say this was a problem because a Deafblind person wanted to fly, but that’s not it at all. If Air Canada personnel were well trained and skilled in dealing with Deafblind travelers, (even if I was completely blind and wanted to travel independently) the attendants for the disabled, with the proper training could guide a Deafblind or blind person or communicate with a Deaf person.
I wonder, howcould a trained person leave a Deafblind person alone – it was not the right thing to do.
What happened to me today was not appropriate, it was wrong. How can a person, supposedly trained to work with the disabled justify treating me like a five year old and chastising me?
I don’t need an assistant or someone with me all the time. I didn’t register for that program. If the airline provides well trained assistants, I won’t mind travelling alone.
What happened to me today has left me tired, overwhelmed, upset and emotional. I have experienced problems in other countries during my travels, but I was able to work through them. It made sense, simply because they were a developing or poor country, or it was a cultural misunderstanding or people were completely unfamiliar with disabled persons. But there were many sweet people in these countries.
We are talking, in my situation, about Ottawa Canada, Calgary Canada, Edmonton Canada.
There is no excuse. I shall send my complaint to Air Canada in the next day or two. If you can, please help with tweets, emails, Facebook or any social media coverage.
I am reminded again of Eddy, who fought hard for the right to have an attendant with him who would fly for free, but what about people like me who want to travel independently? Don’t oppress me. We shall see what is going to come of this – I’ll kick ass for sure. I shall have a bath, get a good night’s sleep and give it a lot of thought as I consider my next steps.
I wanted to record my story in sign, tonight, while it is still fresh in my mind. Hopefully someone will caption this presentation so the hearing people out there can read my story. Perhaps Air Canada will be shocked and their jaws will drop to the ground. Maybe they will give me 10 years of free travel – one needs to see some humour in this!
In reality, I need to hear them say they are sorry for what happened to me and I hope Air Canada will improve their level of training to their staff about interacting with Deafblind persons. That is up to all of you who are Deafblind. It isn’t up to just me or me and Eddy – we are just 2 people. No, it is up to all of you, Deafblind Canadians to come together to support and advocate for this change. It takes a village to make a difference. Include Deaf people, include hearing people, they are our allies.