There’s more to it than just racism. On Wednesday, cricketer Harbhajan Singh tweeted about alleged racism by an expat pilot from Jet Airways. According to Singh, the pilot abused and assaulted two travellers flying to Mumbai, one of them a person with an orthopaedic disability. When the flight landed, he had to wait for 25 minutes for the wheelchair to be brought to the seat. On top of it, the pilot screamed at him for checking-in the wheelchair and delaying the flight. This was done despite the airline allowing them to check it in at Chandigarh from where they had boarded.
This is not the first time a wheelchair-bound traveller has complained of misbehaviour by airline crew. Last year, Paralympics silver winner Deepa Malik filed a complaint against poor handling of wheelchair-bound passengers by the staff of Air Vistara. “The wheelchair handling is so poor that you do not know how to shift a person from seat to cabin chair. The entire staff stands and looks at each other for 10 minutes,” she had said. In 2015, disability rights activist Javed Abidi was forced to get off his wheelchair at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Despite protests, the CISF warned him to comply or miss his flight. Ironically, in 2014, Abidi was part of a panel of activists who had helped frame guidelines to ensure there was no discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel.
According to the 2011 Census, the number of disabled in India stands at 2.68 crore, or 2.21 per cent of the population. India’s built environment is infamously inhospitable to the disabled and the elderly, confining them to their homes. Most public buildings lack ramps and even ATM machines have steps leading up to them. The recently passed Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016, promises barrier-free access to buildings to the disabled, but implementation is lax. Merely de-rostering the pilot, as Jet Airways did, won’t be enough to change the ground reality on discrimination. We need to inculcate a culture of sensitivity towards the physically challenged.