Told to take off pants at Kolkata airport: Disability activist | Kolkata News – Times of India
One of the flyers was Jeeja Ghosh, who was the Election Commission’s poster girl, exhorting persons with disabilities to step out and vote during the Lok Sabha Election 2019. The other person was Kuhu Das, the secretary of the Disability Activists Forum. Das, a polio survivor, wears callipers on her legs. Travelling to the same conference was Ratnaboli Ray, a champion of mental disability, who was one of the recipients of The Times Women Heroes award earlier this year.
Ghosh was stopped by a GoAir ground staff, who said she could not fly unaccompanied. CISF personnel asked Das to take off her trousers in order to check her callipers, which had set off the metal detector.
The three, along with Sampa Dasgupta, another activist, are seasoned flyers. They were travelling to Delhi to discuss and disseminate recommendations made on the UN country report on disability in Geneva last month. Though travelling together, they were scheduled to arrive at the airport individually, check in and meet at the security hold.
A CISF official later said they had no intention to embarrass the flyer, but were only aiming for foolproof security; a GoAir official apologised for the actions of their staffer who stopped Ghosh and said no rule could stop her from flying alone.
“We were all travelling by the 2.20pm GoAir flight, and had arrived at the airport before 1pm,” said Ghosh, who has cerebral palsy and is one of the most prominent faces of persons with disabilities’ rights. “I had requested for a wheelchair, but that took ages to arrive. When I contacted the airline, the person who answered said they were short-staffed. When I finally managed to reach the check-in counter, the staff said I could not fly unescorted and that I would have to wait till others arrived.” Ghosh has a Masters in disability studies from Leeds University, UK, and has travelled the world over on her own.
A graduate in sociology from Presidency College (now Presidency University), Ghosh is a former head of Advocacy and Disability Studies at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy. She gave up the job last year and, along with two partners, co-founded the non-profit organisation ‘Inclusion Infinite Foundation’ as well as limited liability partnership firm Ebullience Advisors. Both are startups breaking new ground in the disabilities rights sector and replace the charity-based model with a rights-based one.
Das was shocked when the female CISF officer asked her to take her trousers off during security check. “For a moment, I couldn’t believe my ears. It was absolutely shocking and utterly humiliating. I have taken so many flights but never been asked to do what the officer did on Sunday,” she said.
Usually, a ‘litmus test’ is performed: a paper that is wiped on a portion of the callipers is passed through a machine that can identify and detect the slightest trace of chemicals or explosives.
Unwilling to take the situation lying down, Ghosh and Das insisted they would travel with dignity or not travel at all. They were soon joined by the other two activists — Roy and Sengupta — and forced airline officials and CISF officers on the back foot. They were finally allowed to travel.
As the group of activists joined in protest against the incident and shared their ordeal on social media, senior airline officials intervened and apologised for the unfortunate incident and allowed them to fly.
The airlines later issued a statement: “GoAir sincerely apologises for the unfortunate incident that took place during the check-in process of a handicap passenger on GoAir flight G8102 from Kolkata to Delhi. The handicap passenger did not pre-book a wheelchair but asked for one at the check-in counter. The duty staff upon realising all three wheelchairs allocated for the said flight were occupied, informed the passenger that she will try to source a wheelchair. It took a few minutes to arrange a wheelchair. GoAir apologises for the delay in sourcing the wheelchair. Wheelchair was sourced and provided for and the passenger was escorted all the way to the aircraft door by the GoAir staff. The duty staff have personally apologised to the passenger and expressed regret for the inconvenience caused to the passenger.”
A CISF officer said they checked CCTV footage and sorted the matter with the woman officer who had asked Das to remove her trousers. He said although staff sensitisation has been carried out about people with disabilities, there are instances when extensive checks are conducted to ensure foolproof security. “Our officer had asked the woman to show her callipers, which is standard checking procedure. There was no intent to embarrass or hurt her,” the officer said.
Ghosh told TOI over phone from Delhi that she was very angry at the treatment meted to her and it reminded her of the humiliation she had faced seven years ago at the hands of staff of another airline. At that time, she had been travelling to the North South Dialogue, an international conference focusing on people with disabilities in Goa, and was forced to disembark from after boarding the flight as the crew felt she could not travel alone. She took the airline to court. In May 2016, Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment, stating that no airline shall refuse to carry persons with disabilities or persons with reduced mobility. The judgment also called all airlines and airport management to run sensitisation programmes for their staff engaged in passenger handling and develop awareness for assisting passengers with disabilities.
“Many persons with disabilities do not require constant assistance for their activities. Therefore, if the passenger declares independence in feeding, communication with reasonable accommodation, toileting and personal needs, the airline shall not insist for the presence of an escort,” read the judgment.