Monday, 30th October 2017

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Pilot sees palsy, not spunk - Lady forced off plane for flying unescorted with 'handicap'

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By AS TOLD TO SREECHETA DAS
  • Published 20.02.12
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An independent, widely travelled woman with cerebral palsy was forced off a Goa-bound plane minutes before take-off from Calcutta airport on Sunday morning because the pilot had reservations about her being on board without an escort.

Jeeja Ghosh, 40, works with an advocacy group of the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy and has been staying and travelling the world on her own since she was a student. So imagine her shock when a smiling flight attendant on board the SpiceJet flight SG 803 walked up to seat 35D to tell her she would need to get off the plane.

“But tell me why?” protested Jeeja, who had clocked thousands of air miles without ever being told her condition was a barrier to flying alone.

The flight attendant, polite but firm, said she would know the reason once she was escorted out of the aircraft. “No, tell me first,” she demanded. No answer.

Flight SG 803 took off for Mumbai en route to Goa on schedule without Jeeja despite her being issued a boarding card, and all because the pilot wouldn’t budge from his stand that a passenger with cerebral palsy should not travel alone.

A senior SpiceJet official said the airline would need to “find out what exactly happened” before making a statement.

Jeeja, who did her postgraduation in social work and disability studies at Leeds in the UK, was to attend a conference in Goa. She narrates to Metro how humiliated she felt on being deplaned for a medical condition she has long overcome to become an educated and successful working woman.

I work for Ankur, an advocacy group through which we fight for the rights of people living with disabilities. I am a frequent visitor to Calcutta airport as I travel regularly to attend workshops and conferences across the country. I visit Delhi the most for work.

On Sunday morning, I was supposed to head for Goa on board SG 803, via Mumbai. It was a SpiceJet flight scheduled to take off at 8.05am and I reached the airport at 7am to check in. I got my boarding pass and informed the airline staff that I would need assistance to board the flight. A person escorted me to the plane and soon I was in my assigned seat. Little did I know what awaited me.

A few minutes later, I noticed the flight crew in a huddle and heard people murmuring my name and pointing at me. Then an airline employee came up to me and politely said: “You will have to accompany me.”

Startled as I was, I asked him the reason. He kept repeating I would need to come out of the aircraft to know the reason. By then, several members of the airline crew were hovering around me. Some of my co-passengers asked why they were bothering me, but they wouldn’t listen. They kept saying I would need to deplane.

“I am a regular flier. All I need is a little bit of assistance,” I tried to convince them, knowing that my condition was the only reason they could target me.

Soon I was seated in a car headed for the terminal. I was seething. I have never felt so insulted. Their sheer insensitivity made me cry.

I called up my senior at work, the executive director of the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy. She tried to convince the airline authorities that I was capable of travelling alone, only to be told that the pilot (Utprabh Tiwari) had a problem flying the aircraft with a “handicapped passenger” travelling unescorted.

The airline staff kept saying: “Very sorry, madam. The pilot insists he cannot take you on board alone.”

I found it nauseating, more so because this man did not have the courage to come up to me and say he had a problem accepting I could take care of myself.

I asked the airline personnel to either arrange for a refund or issue a new ticket to Goa. They gave me a ticket for the Monday morning flight.

The assistant general manager of SpiceJet in Calcutta told me he had spoken to his seniors and that he would make sure I wasn’t harassed and humiliated again.

But what about the pilot’s attitude towards me? His mindset reflects the mental block of society towards people like me. At least I knew where to go and voice my protest. I shudder to think what would happen to another person with disability who has not had similar exposure or opportunities as me.