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Toronto woman who uses wheelchair carried off Air Canada flight

A Toronto woman is calling for more accessibility in air travel after she had to be carried off an Air Canada plane in a badly broken aisle chair, an experience she says was unsafe and undignified.

Tori Lacey, 26, chronicled the troubling incident on her TikTok and Instagram pages, where she usually posts content about her travel exploits as a person who uses a wheelchair.

The video has garnered tens of millions of views since it was posted on May 18, Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and sparked dialogue about the hurdles people with disabilities face when traveling.

“I think this is really a systemic issue, the lack of accessibility in air travel across all airlines,” Lacey told CBC Toronto this week.

The video was captured the same week the federal government wrapped up the National Air Accessibility Summit. The summit was launched in response to numerous reports of airlines leaving passengers with disabilities to deplane without assistance and misplacing vital equipment.

Earlier this month, Lacey flew with her family from Toronto to Costa Rica for vacation. The flight was booked months in advance through Air Canada’s medical desk, which liaises with passengers who have specific accessibility needs.

Lacey has spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that has left her reliant upon a highly customized mechanized wheelchair to get around. Since commercial airplanes are not currently able to accommodate such devices in the passenger cabin, she needs to be transferred out of her wheelchair to fly.

Lacey says she, as usual, requested a jet bridge — a mobile connector that links an airport terminal gate to an airplane — be made available to the Air Canada Rouge flight when it landed. Using a jet bridge is the safest way for Lacey to get off a plane.

“They knew well ahead of time that I needed assistance getting on and off the aircraft,” she says. “I’m not sure how that communication broke down, but clearly it did.”

‘I was really terrified’

While the airport did have a jet bridge, Lacey says, passengers on the Air Canada Rouge flight had to get off using a portable staircase.

That meant airport employees had to carry her down the flight of stairs in an aisle chair — a mobility device designed to fit down the aisles of commercial jets.

But the chair was “completely broken,” Lacey says. It had no arm rests, the security straps were broken and the wheels were not working properly.

“The whole time I was falling to the left,” she says.

Her father tried to use pillows to help prop her up in the chair, and also tried to keep her upright as three airport workers carried her down the steep steps. But Lacey’s discomfort and distress throughout the process is evident in the video posted online.

“It felt like such an unsafe situation, not only for myself but also the workers who were also put in that position to carry me off the plane,” Lacey says. “It didn’t seem like this was a protocol that they had done before. They really didn’t know what they were supposed to do in this situation.”

Lacey says she recognizes the workers did their best given the circumstances. “But it was really unsafe and I was really terrified,” she adds.

Submitted by Tori Lacey

‘This is not a one-off,’ advocate says

Lacey says she didn’t post the video to single out Air Canada, an airline with which she has regularly flown. Rather, she wanted to highlight the realities of air travel for passengers with accessibility needs.

“It is a very undignifying process,” she says, adding that one day she hopes to be able to fly without having to be transferred out of her wheelchair.

In a statement, Air Canada says the airport in Costa Rica was not able to make an aircraft bridge available, necessitating the use of the stairs.

“We have procedures for customers with disabilities to safely embark and disembark aircraft in such cases, and in this instance all protocols were followed,” the statement says.

“However, as part of our accessibility plan, we will be reviewing airport procedures, including for smaller foreign stations, with the aim of working with local airport and other partners to find ways to provide more consistent service,” it continues.

Maayan Ziv, a disability advocate and founder and CEO of AccessNow, an online resource for accessibility information, says what Lacey hardened is emblematic of a concerning “pattern of behavior” among airlines.

“This is not a one-off. This is systemic and it is pervasive within the entire air travel experience from end to end for a passenger with a disability of any kind,” she says.

Ziv was among those invited to speak at the National Air Accessibility Summit. She says the goal is to hold airlines accountable.

“Over the last year or so, we’ve heard countless nightmare stories from people with disabilities across Canada of all different types of service failures,” she says.

“The answer is not, ‘well people with disabilities shouldn’t travel.’ It should be that we need to address these barriers in order to make sure that we are creating equitable experiences for all people.”

Lacey says that despite her experience in Costa Rica, she will continue to post travel content aimed at inspiring others with disabilities to explore what travel has to offer.

“To me, it’s really important to highlight the positive and really great things we can do in this world, because there is a lot that is accessible and sometimes that information is just hard to find.”

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