Jet2 may have apologised, but we need bigger consequences for companies if we are to see real change in how they treat disabled customers
Are companies ever really sorry? When will we see changes in place that will make sure incidents like this don't happen again?
The natural first reaction to a 10-year-old boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy being asked to prove his disability when an airline’s administrative cockup put his flight home in jeopardy is: really? Really?
For those who haven’t yet heard the story, Jack Johnson was returning from a holiday in Croatia when the incident occurred.
Staff at Split airport appeared to have no record of his disability and the (utterly ridiculous) rules required two days notice for a mobility scooter to be put on a Jet2 aircraft.
This led to the twilight zone request for proof (as if you’d need a scooter if you weren’t disabled), resulting in his flabbergasted mother showing his blue badge.
It is, sadly, a story that will prove wearyingly familiar to anyone with a disability who has attempted to travel by any means other than in their own car.
Just a couple of weeks ago, disabled comedian Tanyalee Davis was left humiliated by a train company while using a disabled space. A guard had threatened to call the police if she refused to vacate it. For someone’s pushchair.
As with the airline in Jack’s case, the train company, GWR, apologised and said lessons would be learned. Apparently the team was “horrified” when they saw the footage that she had filmed on her phone.
But will either really change things? Are they really sorry?
I suppose I’d better explain my thinking in asking that, because otherwise I’m going to get furious public relations people calling me up and saying things like “how dare you say that”. Calling into question a travel company’s sincerity is far more serious and outrageous than the incidents themselves. I really should have learned that by now.
Mind you a call back would at least indicate a degree of embarrassment on the part of the firms concerned. Certain transport authorities that seek to portray themselves as paragons of inclusive virtue don’t necessarily even do that.
The reason I tend to treat what companies say when incidents like these occur with a certain degree of cynicism is because they just keep on happening. Again and again and again. And again.
Most of the time they occur away from the glare of publicity.
They usually only get into the media when, A, they involve a prominent person such as Baroness Grey-Thompson, or the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner, or a Paralympian of some description.
Or, B, they are so incredibly, ridiculously, stupendously awful that they have you thinking, nah. That’s just too bad to be true. Until you realise that it is.
There was a bit of both at work with poor Jack (he’s the son of a former rugby league player Andy Johnson). Ditto Tanyalee. I could easily add the awesome Anne Wafula Strike to their number. The former Paralympian went public with her experience after finding herself on a train which had no working disabled toilet (with predictable results).
You get the picture.
Personally, I have travelled on a plane only once since I learned what it feels like to have a cement truck sitting on my ribs. And I had my wife with me to assist and dish out one of her teacher’s stares to anyone giving me grief.
I no longer use TFL’s busses. I do my best to avoid underground trains when I have no one with me to help (with the exception of the very limited number of fully accessible stops).
I realise that’s piss poor from someone who shouts about disability rights in these columns. But there’s only so much unnecessary pain and discomfort I can take beyond what my own body chooses to dole out.
How do we fix this? I was chatting about the subject with Ben Furner, a spokesman for Disability Rights UK, who suggested education.
That’s a decent idea. Some unpleasant and unnecessary incidents occur as a result of simple ignorance; because people simply don’t know how to correctly address a situation or because silly rules and procedures get in the way of their being human.
An example would be when my blind friend was told they had to use a wheelchair if they wanted assistance at an airport “coz that’s how we do it”.
The problem is education is only worthwhile if people, and companies, and transport authorities, and government departments, pay attention to the lessons they receive, and commit to acting upon what they learn.
Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t want to do that. They see it as more of a PR tool. Look at how cuddly and lovable we are! We’ve had inclusivity training! See the picture of the smiling woman in a wheelchair on our website, and the blurb in which she talks about empowerment. We might even put her on an ad we can air in the early hours on cable when no one’s watching.
Maybe Jet2 and GWR will prove different.
But to make absolutely sure of that, I’m afraid it requires tougher laws. Much tougher laws. Laws that would facilitate their getting sued and even prosecuted when they act like jerks.
I don’t think the behaviour encountered by Jack, Tanyalee Ann, me, and some of my friends would happen if the employers of those at fault stood to incur a painful financial as well as a PR hit.