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Air travel “difficult, demeaning and awkward” for people with disabilities, says Melbourne man with cerebral palsy

A Yarraville man is calling out discriminatory practices in air travel and demanding airlines provide better service for people with disabilities as the Disability Royal Commission continues.

Noah Callan’s change.org petition has gone viral with 44,000 signatures, and his bid to improve conditions has been backed by Green Senator Senator Jordon Steele-John who said the quality of service for people with disabilities was “beyond unacceptable”.

“I have experienced this myself many, many times over, airlines need to recognise they are the barrier in this situation and need to change both their attitudes and their policies,” he said.

“Accessibility is a right – it is up to the airlines to ensure that the service they offer is inclusive of everyone.”

The petition’s success comes as the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability continues, with the next hearing to be held in Sydney later this month.

The creator of the petition, 23-year-old Noah Callan, has lived with quadriplegia cerebral palsy his entire life and described his experience of air travel as “undignified and unsafe”.

(Photo by Oliver Lees)

In 2019 Mr Callan planned on travelling to Tasmania to spend Christmas with his family, but had to cancel his plans after no airline could take his electric wheelchair, which he needs to support his body. 

“It’s not fair, because I should have the right to travel just like everyone else,” he said.

And even when he is able to board the plane, Callan said his experience has been “awkward, demeaning and dangerous” due to unprepared staff and a one-size-fits-all seating plan.  

“I have to be lifted and taken to my seat, which requires one person to carry me, that is not a great look for anyone,” he said.  

“My body weight should not be lifted by only one person as I’m too heavy, it is dangerous and undignified for me and my carer.”

Many low-cost airlines do not provide flights capable of adequately serving people with disabilities.

Australian airlines must abide by a two-wheelchair policy, but often on domestic fights, that policy does not include all types of wheelchairs, including Mr Callan’s, whose electric wheelchair is simply too big.

iScream Travel founder Michelle Massey, who has worked as a disability travel advocate for more than 20 years, has always advised her clients not to travel on low-cost airlines. 

“There are some that are terrible, they will not accommodate accessible travel at all,” Massey said.  

“People with disabilities have already been through enough trauma, the last thing they need is more anxiety just to have a common experience we all enjoy.”

The Disability Discrimination Act outlines that people with disabilities have an equal right to access public places, including airplanes. 

People with Disability Australia director of policy and advocacy Romolah Hollywood said the poor standard of access to budget air travel is “definitely a human rights issue” and urged airlines to do better.

“Airlines provide essential travel domestically and should continue to improve access for people with disabilities,” she said.

But Ms Hollywood said under the Disability Discrimination Act it must be proven that any changes made would not cause the airline unjustifiable hardship, a legal hurdle that has created a barrier to improving standards in the past. 

When contacted for comment, a spokesman from Jetstar said the airline was committed to providing a safe travel experience for customer, and a Virgin Airlines spokesman said they are working closely with passengers to provide a dignified service to those with disabilities.  

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