Injury in U.S. leads to travel 'fiasco' for Manitoba coach

After suffering an injury that forced him to use a wheelchair while travelling in the U.S., a Manitoba man says he has a new perspective on the challenges people living with disabilities face on a daily basis.

'Nobody was willing to step up and try to help find a solution,' man says of airline, airport, hotel staff

Jayson Gillespie, seen with son, Zach, has filed a complaint with Air Canada as well as the Canadian Transportation Agency. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

After suffering an injury that forced him to use a wheelchair while travelling in the U.S., a Manitoba man says he has a new perspective on the challenges people living with disabilities face on a daily basis.

Jayson Gillespie, a coach with Manitoba for Cycling, had travelled to Wisconsin to assist youth who were competing in a 10-day race series. While riding along with some of the athletes, Gillespie crashed and fractured his pelvis and elbow.

After receiving treatment at a nearby hospital, Gillespie was told he had to get home as soon as possible. Three other athletes were flying home on June 25 for graduation, so Gillespie decided he would travel with them so that he wouldn't be alone.

"That turned out to be probably the smartest decision of all because of the way things went. I depended heavily on those three to help me through," Gillespie said.

Unable to put pressure on his fractured pelvis, Gillespie was forced to use a wheelchair. He phoned Air Canada and let them know about his condition.

Gillespie said everything went fine at the airport in Milwaukee, although the plane was too small for him to take a wheelchair on and instead he had to use crutches.

"The fiasco of all this really started when we arrived into Toronto," he said.

Gillespie explains the many barriers he faced travelling in a wheelchair:

After a crash that fractured his pelvis and elbow, Jayson Gillespie quickly realized flying while in a wheelchair comes with some problems. 4:00

When the plane landed at Pearson International Airport, instead of using a plane bridge, Gillespie says they brought a ramp to take him down to the tarmac.

But the ramp was too narrow for his crutches. This forced him to hold onto the rails with his hands, putting pressure on his broken right elbow.

After missing their connecting flight to Winnipeg, Air Canada gave Gillespie and the three other athletes vouchers to stay at a hotel for the night. The shuttle to the hotel was not wheelchair accessible, so they booked an SUV limousine.

When they tried to load the wheelchair into the vehicle, however, Gillespie says security came and told them they couldn't take it with them.

One of the youths travelling with Gillespie phoned the Crowne Plaza Toronto Airport hotel and asked if they had a wheelchair, which they said they did, but when they got to the hotel, staff couldn't find it.

"So I've now arrived at the hotel. I have no way of getting out of the SUV because I can't walk into the hotel. The driver is now getting upset because I'm holding him up from being able to go on to other fares," Gillespie said.

They eventually found an office chair on wheels that they used to bring him into the hotel.

As they were checking in, however, they discovered that Air Canada had only given them vouchers for two rooms. This was a problem, Gillespie said, because one of the athletes he was travelling with was a 16-year-old girl, and he didn't want her to have to share a room with males.

But staff at the hotel wouldn't allow Gillespie to book another room.

A spokesperson for the hotel told CBC News that the hotel was fully booked, and that the hotel's wheelchair was being used by someone else when Gillespie arrived.

"We are investigating what steps were taken and looking at internal training as needed," the spokesperson said in an email.

Gillespie tried calling a number for delayed passengers provided by Air Canada, but it was an international number, and Gillespie was told he would have to speak to a local Air Canada agent.

"So nobody was willing to step up and kind of try to help find a solution. It was always like this isn't really our responsibility, this is the responsibility of someone else," he said.

He filed a complaint with Air Canada as well as the Canadian Transportation Agency.

A spokesperson for Air Canada said it is aware of Gillespie's complaint.

"Our goal is to assist travellers with special needs and make their travel as convenient and comfortable as possible. We have reached out to this customer to review his experience and we will be dealing with him directly," the spokesperson said.

A Greater Toronto Airports Authority spokesperson said mobility assistance is the responsibility of the airlines and directed questions to Air Canada.

Although his injuries will heal eventually, Gillespie said he can only imagine what it would be like for someone with a permanent disability.

"For me, what I really hope to get out of this is just an exposure to what actually goes on in these corporations and how little respect they have for people with disabilities," he said.

With files from Wendy Parker, Shane Gibson and Cameron MacLean

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