Differently-abled people have often been at the receiving end of indifferent treatment from airlines.
4 years ago, a 46-year-old teacher at Kolkata’s Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy was on her way to attend a conference on the rights of people with disability. The activist Jeeja Ghosh was offloaded from a Spicejet plane to Goa on the pilot’s insistence as she suffered from cerebral palsy.
A frequent flier who has traveled alone in the country and abroad, Ms Ghosh was offloaded after the pilot declared that she was not fit to fly.
Supreme Court said that a little sensitivity would have saved her the trauma.
SpiceJet told the court that the airline was not informed in advance about Ghosh’s condition and that she could not be moved in absence of an escort.
The court’s judgment incorporates the view that a disability occurs when society fails to incorporate a person’s impairment.
Ms Jeeja Ghosh will receive Rs1 million as compensation from the airline, Spicejet, the Supreme Court ruled on 13th May.
The court, in its order, movingly quoted the famed Hellen Keller and said, “Jeeja Ghosh herself is a living example who has, notwithstanding her disability, achieved so much in life by her sheer determination to overcome her disability and become a responsible and valuable citizen of this country. A little care, a little sensitivity and a little positive attitude on the part of the officials of the airlines would not have resulted in the trauma, pain and suffering that Jeeja Ghosh had to undergo.”
The top court described the attitude of the Spicejet staff as “callous” and said they had had violated Ms Ghosh’s fundamental rights when they offloaded her from their Kolkata to Goa flight on 19 February 2012.
The court said that SpiceJet acted “in a callous manner, and in the process violated (Aircraft) Rules, 1937 and Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR), 2008 guidelines resulting in mental and physical suffering experienced by Jeeja Ghosh and also unreasonable discrimination against her.”
“It is the common experience of several persons with disabilities that they are unable to lead a full life due to societal barriers and discrimination faced by them in employment, access to public spaces, transportation etc.,” the 54-page judgment said.
A bench comprising justices A.K. Sikri and R.K. Agrawal also directed officials of the directorate general of civil aviation and the department of disability affairs to have joint discussions to implement the recommendations of an expert committee headed by joint secretary, ministry of civil aviation G. Ashok Kumar.
The court noted that there was need to bridge the gap between the laws made for the disabled and actual implementation.
“India also has come out with various legislation and schemes for the upliftment of such differently abled persons, but gap between the laws and reality still remains,” the court said.
SpiceJet tried to clarify that the airline was not informed in advance about Ghosh’s condition as stipulated by CAR rules and that she could not be moved in absence of an escort.
Calling the order a landmark in that battle, Ms Ghosh said, “Money is important…not the amount but the punishment… it will set a precedent to others not to take such matter lightly.”
Hailing the court’s judgment, Jaya Chatterjee — a friend of Ms Ghosh — said, “When this happened, I was so ashamed. I used to work in an airline myself.”
The airline had in 2012 issued a statement apologizing for the inconvenience caused to Ms Ghosh. SpiceJet has been ordered to pay the activist within two months.
In January, another activist, Anita Ghai, had alleged that she had to crawl to the passenger coach after deboarding an Air India plane in Delhi. The national carrier had failed to arrange for a wheel chair for her due to “security” reasons, said Ms Ghai, who is also a professor at the Delhi University.
“This is not the first time the judiciary has taken a rights-based approach towards persons with disabilities. For instance, n 2009, the court had upheld the reproductive rights of a woman with a learning disability. This judgment is important as it might pave the way for travel, and in fact infrastructure and services at large, to be more accessible for the disabled. We need to see if this kind of judicial activism can be extended to all forms of transport, and even the right to live in the community.
While this judgment might invoke some of the charity-based notions, it’s more in line with the social model of disability, and is noteworthy for pointing out the issues with the medical model” said Amba Salelkar, of the Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, Chennai.