Point of View

Will the Accessible Canada Act do anything to stop airlines from breaking wheelchairs?

Vancouver writer and wheelchair user Aimee Louw says she feels the effects of government policy every time she gets on a plane.

'Airlines are encouraged not to break your wheels, but nothing really happens to them if they do,' says Louw

An Air Canada plane landing at Vancouver International Airport. A flight expected to arrive in Hawaii from Vancouver has been re-routed back to YVR for maintenance reasons. (Mike Hillman/CBC News)
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Travelling during the holidays is stressful for most people, but especially so for wheelchair users, Aimee Louw says. 

The Vancouver writer and producer is a frequent traveller and wheelchair user herself. She wrote an essay for Day 6 about the challenges she and many others face, and how Canada's new accessibility law might address them.

'On the edge of our seats'

by Aimee Louw

I'm at YVR airport in Vancouver. Last time I was here, the airline broke my wheelchair.

I did tell baggage handlers how to move it in manual, but somewhere along the line, it was damaged. I ended up without it for a month. Abruptly losing the freedom I get from my chair made everything a headache. Getting groceries, going to work, visiting friends. Everything.

I wheel up to the counter preparing myself for the questions they need to ask for my wheelchair to be safe.

It weighs 300 pounds. No, it can't be taken apart. Yes, the batteries are dry cell. No, I don't want to be delivered with the luggage, thanks — I would prefer it to be at the gate upon arrival.

I travel a lot for work and to see my family, and I've learned traveling with the mobility aid is at best stressful. It's one of those areas of life where as a disabled person in Canada I can really feel the effects of policy on my life.

Aimée Louw says air travel is stressful for many people, but when the airline breaks your wheelchair, the airport becomes the scene of your nightmares. (Submitted by Aimee Louw)

In November, the House of Commons passed Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act. It's about a lot of things to do with accessibility, such as telecommunications, rail travel and federal service employment. And it could have a direct impact on transportation like air travel.

This has me and many disabled people in Canada on the edge of our seats.

Yeah, that was a pun.

Increased complaints 

Currently, airlines are encouraged not to break your wheels, but nothing really happens to them if they do. The number of accessibility related complaints filed with the Canadian Transportation Agency has increased from seven complaints in 2014 to 152 complaints in 2018.

You'd think that this has meant more attention to the issue. It hasn't. The Canadian Transportation Agency has actually reduced their periodic inspections of air carriers almost by half.

In 2016, Air Canada spent $300,000 fixing wheelchairs and other mobility aids that they broke.

And that's just within North America. Many people with disabilities are fed up. In fact, over 8,000 people have signed a petition created by disability activist Melissa Graham to demand action on this issue.

The law encourages — but does not require — organizations to improve their accessibility.- Aimee Louw

So, will Canada's first federal accessibility law improve things? The Accessible Canada Act could lead to the development of standards and enforcement, but they are not currently included in the law.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities says the new law does not go far enough. They are disappointed that the law encourages — but does not require — organizations to improve their accessibility.

There's also the possibility of airlines lobbying the transport minister for an exemption, and this is concerning.

As I wait for the other passengers to deplane, I noticed two baggage handlers in bright orange and yellow vests struggling to reach something in the cargo. I hope that if it's my chair they're yanking, it won't be damaged in the process.

Anyway, next year the Canadian Transportation Agency is expected to come out with updated accessibility regulations, so it looks like we will be on the edge of our seats a while longer.


To hear Aimee Louw's audio essay,  download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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