Nova Scotia

Halifax man with disabilities hopes nightmare vacation inspires change

Michael Sanderson, who is from Halifax, is sharing the disastrous series of events he faced during a recent trip in an effort to encourage travel companies to do more to support their customers who have disabilities.

'I should be able to travel like every other person,' says Michael Sanderson

Michael Sanderson is offering to consult with travel companies to help them understand how to help customers who have disabilities. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Michael Sanderson and his son were in shock as they watched their cruise ship pull out of a Miami pier without them last Friday.

Surprisingly, missing out on the cruise to the Bahamas was not the worst part of their weeklong vacation.

Sanderson, who is from Halifax, is sharing the disastrous series of events he faced during the trip in an effort to encourage travel companies to do more to support their customers who have disabilities.

Sanderson uses a wheelchair and was dismayed by comments from staff from various travel companies. Not only that, his wheelchair was lost on the flight on his way home.

The problems started one week ago when Sanderson and his son boarded the Norwegian Sky cruise ship and discovered his agent at Costco Travel hadn't booked an accessible room.

Michael Sanderson says he knows there are worse things than being stuck in Miami during a vacation, but he is dismayed by the insensitivity he faced by staff from several travel companies. (Submitted by Michael Sanderson)

When he flagged the issue to Norweigan Cruise Line staff, he said one woman repeatedly offered a solution. 

"You can just walk into the room," she told Sanderson.

He said he told her that wasn't an option because he can't walk.

"That just shows an insensitivity around what people with disabilities face on a daily basis," said Sanderson. "You know, I'm not choosing to be in a wheelchair."

No accessible room

The staff did offer to ask other guests to switch rooms, but they said they wouldn't have an answer until after the ship departed. If no one agreed to switch, Sanderson would have to stay in the inaccessible room.

Determined to take the cruise, he said he came up with is own solution — he would crawl around the room, but would need porters to help him get in his wheelchair when he was leaving.

Sanderson said a staffer told him that 'If you needed that kind of help, you should have booked it ahead of time.'"

Feeling he had no option but to leave the ship before it departed, Sanderson stayed in Miami where he had to pay for a hotel and meals as he waited for his flight home.

Wheelchair not on the plane

But the problems didn't end there.

On Tuesday, Sanderson boarded his Air Canada flight, which included a stopover in Toronto. When they landed at Pearson airport, he learned his wheelchair didn't make the trip.

"A wheelchair is not a bag of toothpaste," he said.

Sanderson said he was dismayed by the lack of urgency from several staff members.

"I said, 'You need to understand when I give you my wheelchair, it's as if I am sawing my legs off and handing you my legs, and then telling you, please keep these safe.'

"If you treated my wheelchair like you would treat that, then it would be different. But they don't. They treat it like a piece of luggage."

Damaged wheelchair

Sanderson said there was one Air Canada employee who showed compassion and tried to help, but they couldn't locate his wheelchair.

Instead of returning home, Sanderson found himself sitting in Pearson airport for hours waiting in a standard, bulky wheelchair.

He then spent the night in an airport hotel. When there was no sign of his wheelchair on Wednesday, he returned to Halifax without it.

On Thursday afternoon, his wheelchair arrived, but one of the brakes was damaged.

What the travel companies are saying

For their part, all the companies involved have apologized.

Costco Travel, the agency that booked the trip, has taken responsibility for not booking the proper accessible room, said Sanderson. The company would not comment to CBC News directly, but he said they are reviewing his receipts for the additional expenses he incurred.

Norweigan Cruise Line sent a statement, offering to refund the cruise and giving him a half-price credit for future travel.

While Michael Sanderson's wheelchair is now back in Halifax, one of the brakes is jammed and needs to be repaired. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

"We are in the business of providing incredibly positive and memorable experiences for all our guests," the company said. "We regret that we were unable to help Mr. Sanderson."

Air Canada told CBC News that it takes its responsibility to transport passengers with disabilities seriously.

"We understand Mr. Sanderson's disappointment and apologize for the inconvenience this situation has created," Air Canada wrote in an email.

"We have a team looking into what happened in Toronto and Miami."

A hope for change

Sanderson said he has offered to help the companies understand how they can support passengers who have disabilities.

He said travelling is becoming worse, not better.

"It almost feels to me ... they would prefer if I just didn't travel because it makes it so much more work for them to deal with my wheelchair and deal with me," he said.

"I should be able to travel like every other person."