Commentary: Traveling Internationally with a Disability

Recently, Air Canada eliminated a policy forbidding individuals who are deaf-blind from flying alone. This policy required deaf-blind passengers to travel with an assistant, regulation which was not required of passengers with other disabilities. The policy was changed after Carrie Moffatt, a passenger who is legally blind and deaf, submitted a complaint and took legal action after Air Canada refused to change the policy.


As a frequent international blind traveler, I unfortunately am not surprised that such policies still exist. Legislation like the Americans with Disabilities and Air Carrier Access Acts have made air travel more accessible for those of us with disabilities in the United States. Although it is true that passengers with disabilities in the U.S. still experience discrimination, those traveling to and from other countries are likely to face even greater challenges because of the persisting negative ideas about disabilities abroad.


I have several friends with disabilities in Mexico who are frequent travelers. While not always the case, they have had negative, and even humiliating experiences when trying to board airplanes from international carriers. Airlines have refused to allow them to board simply because they don’t have someone accompanying them. To me, the most frustrating part of this all too common scenario is that while Mexico’s legislation regarding air travel forbids this type of discrimination, and airlines often don’t have a reasonable excuse, they still take it upon themselves to refuse people with disabilities who want to travel independently like everyone else. Even worse is the fact that in some cases, they require the “assistant” to fill out and sign paperwork designating him or her as the disabled person’s attendant. Only then will airlines allow disabled passengers onboard.


On a personal level, I am deeply disturbed that airline staff might consider me incapable and therefore refuse me onboard without someone else. This is honestly the main reason why I still prefer to go with friends or family when traveling to Mexico or other countries. It’s not that I don’t feel capable of advocating for myself – after all, I have had to do that throughout my life. Rather, I’m nervous of experiencing needless humiliation in front of other passengers. I can only hope that when I do fly on my own I will be able to both advocate and educate airline staff on the capabilities of disabled individuals.


Not all international air carriers have such outdated practices when it comes to people with disabilities. During the many times when I’ve traveled to Mexico, I have encountered flight attendants and airport staff who will go out of their way to accommodate my needs. They might do things as simple as letting me pre-board the plane or telling me when they set drinks or snacks on my tray table. Still, I am appalled that airline staff sometimes treats disabled passengers as minors, simply because of persisting misconceptions about our capabilities.


I applaud Air Canada for changing their policy regarding deaf-blind individuals, and hope other airlines will follow in their footsteps. Airline staff have the best of intentions and want passengers with disabilities to be as safe and comfortable as everyone else, but outdated attitudes and policies like this one can and often will have the opposite effect. I encourage airlines to learn more about the best practices for accommodating passengers with all types of disabilities. Better yet, I encourage them to ask each individual passenger how he or she wants to be accommodated. As people with disabilities, we are the best advocates and know our needs better than anyone else. These simple measures will make air travel more pleasant and positive for all involved.


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