Imagine buying a ticket to go on holiday and then, just as you're about to board the plane, being insulted by the pilot who threatens to kick you off the flight. Or rushing to the airport to catch a flight and then being stopped at security check and told to strip. Or being forced off the plane because the airline doesn't like the look of you. These aren't the experiences of people suspected of terrorist activities or criminals, but of regular people who have been victimised because they have physical disabilities. They're subjected to insensitivity, humiliation and abuse because they use crutches or a wheelchair or an artificial limb.
"'Stay at home if you have a disability,' that's what we as Indians grow up thinking and telling others," said Suranjana Ghosh Aikara, who works for Network 18 and has been using a prosthesis, or artificial limb, for years because one of her legs was amputated to treat a form of bone cancer. After silently suffering humiliation at Indian airports because of her prosthesis, Ghosh has decided to now speak out. "I don't want people to judge me by my disability," said Aikara. "I take pride in the fact that I've lived my life like a regular person in every way and no one can tell by looking at me that I have any disability."
Aikara's artificial leg, which she describes as her "lifeline", is a sophisticated piece of equipment. "It looks a lot like my own leg from the outside," described Aikara. Taking the prosthesis off is painstaking, both physically and emotionally. Without it, Aikara's leg is a stump. "That is me at my most vulnerable," said Aikara. "It's worse than being naked." Airport security has repeatedly reduced her to this vulnerable, exposed state in the name of security. On more than one occasion, in supposedly world-class airport terminals like New Delhi's T3, Aikara has faced insensitive handling from airport authorities. Both junior and senior officers have ignored her disability certificate — according to those who have harassed Aikara, anyone can get such a certificate — forced her to strip, subjected her to offensive remarks, removed her prosthesis.
All this was done in the name of security. In actual fact, what they should have done is frisked her leg and done an Explosive Trace Detector scanner test, which does not require the subject to do anything more than stand still, with all their clothes and prosthesis on.
In 2007, NGO activist Rajiv Rajan, a cerebral palsy patient, was not allowed to board a private airline. Despite his case becoming high profile and getting a fair degree of exposure, the treatment of people with disabilities has not improved much since. Jeeja Ghosh suffered similar treatment in 2012 and now, more and more people are speaking out about the treatment of airport security personnel, who — empowered by their uniforms — think nothing of intimidating and humiliating travellers with disabilities.
Earlier this year, Rajesh Bhatia faced similar treatment when he flying out of New Delhi. Bhatia lost his right leg in an accident 24 years ago. In his case too, the airport staff ignored his disability certificate and forced him to remove his trousers and take off his artificial limb, all the while asking him humiliating questions. An enraged Bhatia began a campaign on Change.org and Facebook demanding airport and airline staff be better educated so that they treat physically-challenged travellers with respect and sensitivity. He appeared on Headlines Today in March, determined to raise awareness for his cause. "I have my rights and they are in no way less than the rights of any normal citizen," he said succinctly.
Bhatia's online campaign isn't the first attempt to change the way systems work at airports. For the past few years, spearheaded by Rahul Cherian (who recently passed away), Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy has been working to force the Ministry of Civil Aviation to take the rights of physically-challenged travellers seriously. In the past, Inclusive Planet has made a submission on behalf of 20 NGOs on the aspects that needed to be covered in the new Civil Aviation Policy to address the needs of persons with disabilities. Inclusive Planet was also part of a committee that submitted a report to the Ministry of Civil Aviation on existing regulations on air travel for persons with disabilities.
There's a lot of work that needs to be done, according to Amba Salelkar, who works with Inclusive Planet. "The Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 does have regulations in place dealing with accessibility of transport, roads and the built environment but the focus is on physical access, and not issues which come up beyond this," said Salelkar. "A person with a disability may be able to get on a flight, but there are so many other issues relating to comfort, and in Suranjana's case, dignity, that need to be taken care of." Salelkar also pointed out that while we have laws providing for basic rights for people with disabilities, they aren't adequate. "There is no recourse to discrimination or undignified practices, but happily under the draft amendments to the Mental Health Act (to some extent) and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, these issues are being redressed," she said.
The only way the situation will improve for people with disabilities is education. The central problem is that airport staff have little to no exposure to either people with disabilities or a modern prosthesis. "We don't talk about disability or what's out there to help those who have it," said Aikara. "My prosthesis costs Rs 14 lakhs. It's more expensive than a lot of the cars on the road and it's being manhandled. I can bet not one of the officers who have the responsibility of clearing me for security have ever seen anything like it."
"Training of security is very important. I cannot emphasize this enough," concurs Salelkar. "They need to know the individual problems faced by persons with different disabilities, and how to address the same. And persons with disabilities are willing and ready to help out in training, we have plenty of resource persons willing to contribute."
At present, despite the outrage and efforts, security personnel remain woefully unaware and when backed into a corner, they have one excuse that trumps every complaint: national security. However, when the rest of the world is able to run airports in which people with disabilities are not humiliated, why can't India can't do the same? Why must the mission to uphold national security — regardless of how successful this mission may be — rob citizens of their dignity?