Despite new civil aviation ministry guidelines feasibility still a distant dream, say wheelchair users

"More than coming up with these guidelines and circulars, it is the execution and sensitisation of the [CISF] staff that is important"

At the moment, most people who are wheelchair-bound, carry their own wheelchairs to the airport, which have to be manually scanned via X-ray, during which the person is shifted to an airport wheelchair. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

In light of the recent airport incident involving actor Sudhaa Chandran, wherein she was asked to remove her “artificial limb” while going through security screening, the civil aviation ministry has issued draft guidelines for air travel of disabled people, allowing them an easier and a more dignified experience.

The guidelines state that airport operators must make “special arrangements” to facilitate screening of persons with special needs, just so the process can be carried out “keeping the dignity and privacy of the passenger in mind”.

In her video appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chandran has stated that she is always asked to physically remove her limb while going through airport security, despite her appealing to the CISF staff to do an ETD (Explosive Trace Detector) instead. “Is this humanly possible, Modi ji? Is this what our country is talking about? Is this the respect that a woman gives to another woman in our society?” she said in the video.

Now, the draft guidelines state that during the screening of prosthetics, airport security may use X-ray, ETD devices or visual checks per their requirement. In other words, if a passenger has a prosthetic limb, they may be asked to pass through the metal detector door, and then be taken to a private screening point. Following this, they may then receive additional screening like a pat-down. “A prosthetic appliance, which does not have any foam padding cover under which any weapon or explosive can be concealed and in which the steel rod of the appliance is clearly visible, may be screened by visual inspection and ETD checks only, without removing it,” it states.

In some rare cases, an X-ray screening may be required, justification for which is to be recorded by the screener.

To understand the practicality of these guidelines, and if at all they will work for wheelchair-bound people in the future, or those with artificial limbs, reached out to people who have had their share of harrowing airport experiences — owing to their disability — to understand what it means to them.

Arman Ali, executive director of National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP) — who uses a wheelchair — said what India lacks is awareness. “There is a complete lack of awareness on the needs of people with disabilities. When you go through the security, they ask you to stand up. If you use a personal wheelchair, they will have an issue with that as well. They want to get that scanned, which is important, too. These guidelines may be there, but until and unless there is a larger awareness, this will not go far.”

Wheelchair users ask for standardisation and sensitivity across airports in India. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

Ali also highlighted that there is no uniformity. “An equipment you find in Delhi Airport, may not be available in Patna Airport, or any other small airport. The ETD device, for instance, may not be available in many airports, and you will have to put your wheelchair, or prosthetic limb physically into the X-ray machine. In many international airports, a walk-in X-ray is available for people who do not like anyone touching their body,” he said.

‘PRM not the same as people with disabilities’

A passenger with restricted mobility (PRM) may also use the wheelchair, but they may or may not be a person with disability, and there is a need to differentiate between the two, Ali said, adding that a PRM may be able to walk for a short distance, or even stand up, but a person with disability cannot.

At the moment, most people who are wheelchair-bound, carry their own wheelchairs to the airport, which have to be manually scanned via X-ray, during which the person is shifted to an airport wheelchair — a routine that many find extremely cumbersome.

Dr Anjlee Agarwal, an accessibility, mobility and WASH specialist, told this outlet that contrary to what people may believe, wheelchair-bound passengers are found at airports in huge numbers, and this is why the CISF staff have to be trained on how to deal with them.

“If someone is an amputee, and wears a leg, they are often asked to lift their clothing for the staff to see their leg. In fact, it happens in the open! I am an assisted wheelchair user, and they tell me things like, ‘Ma’am, aap khade nahi ho sakte? Thoda sa khade ho jao (Can you not stand at all? Can you try standing for a bit?)’ And I tell them I cannot stand at all, which is why I am in the wheelchair. I request them for an ETD, but they tell me I may carry an explosive in my own personal wheelchair [so that has to be put into the X-ray machine]. A standard practice is not there,” she said.

Agarwal narrated an incident that left her mortified once, when the lady screening her got too inquisitive about her marital life, asking her how her husband “deals” with a wife who uses the wheelchair. “She wanted to know if I took the wheelchair before or after marriage, if I can have kids, etc. She basically asked me how my husband cooperates with me, because of my disability. I told her it is none of her business.”

Wheelchair users say they do not find it comfortable to shift to an airport wheelchair, because they spend so many hours in their own wheelchair, which is manually scanned in the X-ray machine. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

There have also been instances when passengers have been told of ‘nuskhe‘ which can help them walk again! Agarwal, herself, was once told to use the men’s washroom inside the airport, because the washroom for disabled people had been converted into a janitor room. It made her feel livid and also invisible.

Nikhil Gupta, the captain of the Wheelchair Rugby Team of India, however, said airport staff are now more informed. “Before check-in, we now have to just inform them of how to handle the wheelchair; they then shift us to another wheelchair. If someone wants to go till the flight in their own wheelchair, then there may be some issues, because they may have to go through several security checks which can be inconvenient,” he said, adding that security checks become more seamless when one shifts to an airport-provided wheelchair.

Gupta said it is mostly female wheelchair users and aged people who feel uncomfortable when they are shifted from one wheelchair to another. “So they prefer to be in their own wheelchair till the security checks happen.”

He suggested that a doctor certificate stating a person has been using an artificial limb for years, and that it is a genuine case, can prevent inconveniences in the airport.

Nipun Malhotra, CEO, Nipman Foundation uses an electric wheelchair, and he, too, has been asked to get out of it, but he “cannot walk at all”. He said an ETD device can make travelling easier for people like him and also those who use prosthetic limbs.

“In 2017, a similar guideline had come out. More than coming up with these guidelines and circulars, it is the execution and sensitisation of the [CISF] staff that is important.” Once, when he was travelling from Delhi to Hyderabad, Malhotra said he found the attitude of the Delhi staff pleasant. But in Hyderabad, he struggled with a staff that was “not very sensitive”.

He calls for standardisation and sensitivity. “It is also time-consuming for someone to move from one wheelchair to another, and bothersome for other passengers, who are waiting in line.”

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