Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update
United for a Barrier-Free Ontario for All People with Disabilities
Blistering Toronto Star Editorial Calls on Canada Transportation Agency to Crack Down on Airlines’ Poor Service to Passengers with Disabilities
December 12, 2023
The Toronto Star’s December 12, 2023 edition includes a powerful editorial. It blasts Canadian airlines for failing passengers with disabilities. It slams the Canada Transportation Agency for weak enforcement of disability accessibility requirements. This editorial, which we set out below, includes a quote from AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky.
This is the 19th major media outlet’s editorial in support of our grass roots accessibility campaign since late 1994. You can read all those editorials on the AODA Alliance website’s editorials page. It is always great when the media covers our issues. A news outlet’s editorial is particularly powerful for us. In it, a major news outlet like the Toronto Star does not just report on our issues. It goes further, by endorsing a call for reform for which we have advocated.
We have raised serious concerns for years with the Canada Transportation Agency’s poor work at enforcing accessibility of airline services. The CTA is too close to the airlines it is supposed to effectively regulate. That is a key reason why the AODA Alliance called on the Trudeau Government to re-assign responsibility for enforcing disability accessibility at airlines to another agency when the Government was developing the Accessible Canada Act. We have been very critical of the Trudeau Government for rejecting our position and for leaving the enforcement of disability accessibility at the airlines with the CTA despite its decades of poor performance on this issue. Our efforts on that issue can be found on the AODA Alliance website’s Canada page.
On November 9, 2023, Air Canada announced some partial new measures to do better at addressing the needs of some passengers with disabilities. The November 9, 2023 AODA Alliance update commended those limited steps while identifying why much more is needed. Today’s Toronto Star editorial echoes a number of our concerns.
Send the Toronto Star a letter to the editor! Congratulate the Star for running this editorial. Tell the Star about your experience or that of others you know, traveling as a person with disabilities on a Canadian airline. Send your letter to the editor to email@example.com
Federal accessibility laws addressing disability barriers in airline services implement the spirit of Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the equal protection and equal benefit of the law to people with disabilities. Of historic note, 43 years ago today, David Lepofsky, who was later to become Chair of the AODA Alliance, made a deputation to Canada’s Parliament on why the proposed Charter of Rights should be amended to include equality rights for people with disabilities. It was a result of the advocacy efforts of many that Parliament eventually added disability equality rights to the Charter of Rights. You can watch a captioned video of David Lepofsky’s December 12, 1980 presentation to the Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution of Canada.
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Toronto Star December 12, 2023
Accessibility woes in air travel
Sometimes sorry seems to be the easiest word.
Thanks to Air Canada’s poor treatment of passengers with disabilities, the national carrier is certainly getting good at saying it. After multiple egregious incidents, including one in which a man with cerebral palsy was forced to drag himself off a flight, Air Canada was quick to offer its “sincere” apologies.
Amid the flurry of negative publicity, Air Canada also issued a hastily crafted news release announcing “a series of measures to reduce barriers … for customers with disabilities.” It also acknowledged that it “sometimes” fails to meet its obligations, for which it offered “a sincere apology.” There’s that word again.
Not to be outdone, either in its shoddy treatment of disabled passengers or its displays of contrition, WestJet offered a “sincere” apology to a Paralympian who had to perform the Olympian task of lifting herself up to the plane, stair by stair, since a jet bridge wasn’t available.
Discount carrier Flair Airlines has also been doling out the apologies, including for leaving an elderly woman with a prosthetic leg at the gate and damaging a women’s wheelchair.
These incidents reveal that mistreatment of passengers with disabilities – and the perfunctory mea culpas – aren’t limited to Air Canada. Nor are they recent phenomena; “discrimination and unacceptable treatment,” as the federal transport committee recently called it, has been occurring for years, decades even.
Consequently, following a motion by NDP MP Taylor Bachrach, the party’s transport critic, the committee said that it will invite the CEOs of Air Canada and WestJet to testify. But if past is prologue, we know what to expect: “Sincere” apologies, followed by promises to improve services – in other words, the same rinse and repeat routine the airlines have been performing for years.
Clearly, more conspicuous displays of contrition aren’t going to do the trick. The only thing that will is regulatory change which, fortunately, the committee seems to understand. In addition to the CEOs, the committee plans to hear from federal Transport Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Auditor General Karen Hogan, and to study the regulatory regime surrounding accessibility.
That study will no doubt find that the regulator – the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) – has consistently failed to ensure the airlines fulfil their legal and ethical duties toward passengers with disabilities. The years-long “discrimination and unacceptable treatment” of such passengers is a testament to that fact.
While the CTA stresses that its role includes “monitoring compliance with regulations,” problems with accessibility are typically handled reactively, by responding to passenger complaints. It’s up to passengers to lodge a complaint, which is then followed by a long, arduous procedure involving contact with the airline, facilitation or mediation and, ultimately, adjudication before a panel.
Most passengers have neither the emotional nor the financial means to pursue this process to the end. Many never even bother to make a complaint in the first place, and a few bypass the complaints process and approach the media, which leads to apologies and promises to do better. And the problems continue to fester.
Instead of expecting passengers to police the airlines, lawyer and disability activist David Lepofsky argues that the CTA ought to step up and proactively enforce the law itself, by conducting “regular, unannounced on-site spot audits of airlines.”
Such “secret-shopper” visits would effectively put the airlines on notice, since at any moment they could face serious consequences for failure to discharge their obligations. It would therefore be a lot more effective than simply waiting for complaints, most of which will never materialize.
It would also effectively end the need for all the “sincere” apologies. Because treating all passengers, including those with disabilities, with dignity and respect means never having to say you’re sorry.