News / Toronto

'This is a global problem:' Disability advocates in Toronto decry lack of accessibility on airlines

"Flying for someone who doesn't have a disability can be a nightmare, so imagine what it's like using a wheelchair," says Stop Gap founder Luke Anderson.

Tim Rose and his wife Natalie (with his dog Rush) are trying to fly direct to Cleveland in September, but Air Canada said they can't accommodate his wheelchair even though he took this same flight with them 14 months ago.Photographed in their Toronto home on Monday.

Torstar News Service file

Tim Rose and his wife Natalie (with his dog Rush) are trying to fly direct to Cleveland in September, but Air Canada said they can't accommodate his wheelchair even though he took this same flight with them 14 months ago.Photographed in their Toronto home on Monday.

Accessibility advocates in Toronto say the story of a man denied a seat on an Air Canada flight because his wheelchair is too large is a sign of “systemic” problems in the airline industry.

Tim Rose, 31, tried to book a flight to Cleveland in September, but was told he wouldn’t be able to fly because his wheelchair can’t fit in the cargo hold.

“I said, ‘This is discrimination,’ and they said, ‘No it’s not, it’s the same thing as if you had an oversized bag. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.’ So essentially, she just compared me to luggage,” Rose said.

Ing Wong-Ward, associate director of Toronto’s Centre for Independent Living, uses a wheelchair and said Rose’s experience is unfortunately not unique.

“Any traveller who uses a wheelchair can tell you their own stories of horror or surprise,” she said. “I have friends who are wheelchair users who don’t fly anymore because it’s such a hassle.”

Wong-Ward has travelled extensively and has yet to find an airline that “gets it.” Passengers cannot bring their mobility devices on board aircraft, she said, so when she flies, she spends hours “in a seat that’s not designed for my body” while worrying if her wheelchair will be there when she disembarks.

“One thing people need to understand is that a wheelchair is what we rely on for our independence and autonomy,” she said. “It’s not just a piece of luggage like ski equipment or a surf board.”

Luke Anderson, founder of the Stop Gap initiative, which provides accessible wheelchair ramps to local businesses, said companies like Air Canada should provide equal service to every passenger.

“They need policies in place to accommodate regardless of the situation. If one aircraft can’t handle it, then there needs to be a policy that puts another aircraft in its place,” he said.

Anderson and Wong-Ward are hopeful cases like Rose’s can help move the conversation forward and reduce barriers for those with disabilities.

“Tim’s in the unfortunate situation of having discovered the issue, but hopefully it will help companies like Air Canada develop better policies,” he said.

Air Canada responds

A representative from Air Canada said the plane that travels between Toronto and Cleveland - a CRJ regional jet - has a cargo hold door that is too small for Rose's wheelchair.

The representative said the airline contacted Rose and presented him with two options: to take an indirect flight on planes that have a larger cargo door or to have the wheelchair transported on a different flight and sent to him when he arrives in Cleveland.

But Rose denied receiving any such offers.

“They have not presented me with any options. They haven't even spoken to me (since posting on social media),” he said.

Rose said that taking a connecting flight isn't a good option for him anyway because he also has a service dog, and transferring between planes takes extra time for him. In this case, he said it would be quicker for him to get a ride to Cleveland rather than take a flight with a layover.

With files from Canadian Press

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