Disability minister promises to correct 'long-standing problem' of airlines damaging mobility aids

Canada's federal minister of disability inclusion is promising to help reform air travel for people with disabilities after a Toronto advocate's wheelchair was "totally damaged" during an Air Canada flight.

Disability advocate's wheelchair found 'totally damaged' after Air Canada flight last week

Carla Qualtrough, the federal minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, says she's concerned about the lack of care given to airline passengers with disabilities, and the 'lack of accountability and corrective action' from airlines. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's federal minister of disability inclusion is promising to help reform air travel for people with disabilities after a Toronto advocate's wheelchair was "totally damaged" while in the care of Air Canada employees.

CBC Toronto told Maayan Ziv's story last week soon after she found her $30,000 wheelchair broken after landing in Israel for an international accessibility conference last Thursday. 

The minister, Carla Qualtrough, responded to the story this week, calling the incident an example of a "long-standing problem" with airlines mistreating people with disabilities and their mobility devices.

"We have to figure out a way to end this once and for all," said Qualtrough, who's also the minister of Employment and Workforce Development.

"I promise you, we're on it."

The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), which regulates air travel, said in an email to CBC Toronto it "cannot comment" on the incident.

But within the next week, Qualtrough says she'll meet with the CTA and Air Canada to convey her concerns and work out an action plan to prevent any more such incidents.

'I'm looking for accountability'

Ziv's story triggered an outpouring of support on social media from people who've also had airlines mishandle their mobility aids.

"I'm looking for accountability that doesn't just recognize the harm done to me, but to the thousands of people that I've now heard from that have shared similar stories," Ziv said.

Kristin Hayes is one of them. 

Hayes, who lives in Toronto, says her wheelchair has been damaged multiple times while flying.

But she says her trip to Hawaii four years ago was her worst experience of all. Hayes says American Airlines misplaced her wheelchair and took 30 hours to find it and give it back to her.

"And that was after a lot of phone calls, an enormous amount of stress, panic, feeling completely helpless and for many of those hours, not having any answers," she told CBC Toronto.

"How many times does this need to happen before somebody other than us cares enough to try to help us do something about it?" 

Kristin Hayes, who uses a wheelchair, is a frequent traveller. The Toronto woman says the airline industry needs to change the way it treats people with disabilities and their mobility aids. (Submitted by Kristin Hayes)

Steve Kean's worst experience flying happened during a 2009 trip with EasyJet to Venice, Italy. The Toronto man says when he got his wheelchair back, its right front wheel was "three inches off the ground."

"I'm thousands and thousands of miles away from home and my wheelchair is busted,"  Kean recalled.

"What the heck am I supposed to do?"

Decades earlier, Kean remembers almost falling three times on an Air Canada plane while transferring back to his wheelchair from an aisle seat.

"I think they were more afraid of the lawsuit than helping a human being."

Steve Kean, 54, says airlines need a major 'attitude' change. The Toronto man says he wants to stay seated in his wheelchair on flights so he doesn't have to entrust it to somebody who 'isn't going to know how to take care of it.' (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

While both Kean and Hayes say their individuals situations have been resolved, they hope the spotlight on Ziv's story pushes the federal government to crack down.

For her part, Qualtrough has asked people with disabilities to continue pushing the government "to do better."

"Keep helping us hold companies to account, because that's the only way we're going to get the change that we need."

With files from Kirthana Sasitharan, Natalie Kalata and Vanessa Balintec