Advocate questions whether Air Canada has 'cultural problem' after issue with teen's wheelchair
Flying over the Grand Canyon was a highlight for the Gellisen family during their trip to Phoenix — but their flight home to Toronto was a much different experience, with several family members forced off of the flight over tensions related to a teen's wheelchair.
Now, the family is speaking out about the experience, saying that Air Canada needs to make amends for the way they were treated.
When preparing for a trip, Kadey Schultz knows to check ahead of time what the accommodations are for wheelchairs.
Her son, Emery, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare disease that mostly affects boys. It means that he can only walk short distances.
In order to conserve his energy, he uses a wheelchair the rest of the time.
"I primarily use it at school to get in between classes," he told CTV National News. "Because … I need to save the muscles for more important things, like making the heart beat and stuff."
Without the wheelchair, he can only walk a few blocks before needing to take a break.
To Emery, his wheelchair is considered an extension of his body, so his mother spent hours arranging for the wheelchair to be stowed in cabin.
"We had made all the arrangements with Air Canada for mobility requirements for Emery's wheelchair in advance," Schultz said. "I had spoken with Air Canada on the telephone as well as emailed with them."
They had received an email from Air Canada with the U.S. regulations and measurement requirements and confirmed that Emery's chair met them.
But when they got to the gate and met with an Air Canada employee to make the arrangements for Emery to board the airplane and have his chair stowed properly, the careful plan began to unravel.
"One of the flight attendants said that she would not make the closet available for Emery's wheelchair. And I asked her, 'Why not?' And she said because she had stuff in it," Schultz said.
It turned out that there had been a mixup with the dimensions of Emery's chair during the email communications, and Schultz was told to deal with gate staff to clear up the problem.
But she says that staff at the gate and crew on the flight were unaccommodating, refusing to look at documents that demonstrated Emery's wheelchair had been approved to be stored in cabin and met the requirements.
"They had no training. The flight attendant, who was so difficult and retaliatory with me, she actually said, 'I don't know what you're talking about, I've never heard of this before,' which is why I offered her the email," Schultz said.
She says the employee would not look at the email from Air Canada about the requirements for accommodation, so she began reading it out loud.
Schultz was then told she wasn't welcome on the flight, and says when her daughter asked for the attendant's last name, she too was kicked off the plane.
She believes that a lack of training is one of the big problems.
"I think that when people don't know what they're doing, and feel intimidated, that they can lash out," she said.
"The reason why we never ever want to put Emery's wheelchair down below when it can be avoided is because it gets damaged. And these wheelchairs costs so many thousands of dollars and they are not luggage. They are part of the user's body."
Emery was able to remain on that flight home with his dad, but only after his mother pleaded with staff to let them fly home, she said, citing medical reasons as well as his birthday party, which was set to occur in Toronto the next day.
Emery turns 16 on Monday, and celebrated on Sunday. Schultz and her daughter almost missed his party because they had to take a new flight the next day.
"It was kind of frustrating and I did not enjoy it," Emery said about the situation. "I'm usually the person at the airport that's cool as a cucumber but like, that's kind of hard to be cool when a frustrating (thing) like that happens."
Air Canada says it will be following up with the customer directly, and that, "Generally, we fully appreciate the importance of mobility devices and make every effort to transport these devices safely in a manner convenient for customers."
Emery said it was concerning to realize that even his mother, who has extensive experience in advocating for people with disabilities, had to "stand down in a situation like this."
"I'm pretty sturdy, but it did upset me in a frustrating way, because I just want to travel in peace and not have any problems happen," he said.
"Because I'm not the only one who has these … challenges. Other people use chairs too, and some of them don't have moms like mine that can like stand up for them and fight for them and stuff and also that know their stuff."
His mother is an award-winning litigation lawyer and disability advocate.
Schultz is acting as counsel for Maayan Ziv, a Toronto woman whose chair was damaged by Air Canada. Ziv, who has spinal muscular atrophy, went as far as bubble-wrapping her wheelchair before handing it over to staff before her flight in 2022, but still found it broken when the plane landed.
"I have to question whether Air Canada has a cultural problem," Schultz said.
"I am concerned that Air Canada has a cultural problem in terms of its commitment to equity for people with disabilities. I'm concerned because this is a repetitive negative experience for people with disabilities, not just my family, and so is it coming from the top or is a lack of training and a lack of commitment to that training, I don't know. But it's rampant and it needs to stop."
She said that families already have to deal with so much more stress to ensure a trip goes smoothly when a family member has a disability, and for all of that work to be thrown out at the gate of the airplane is hugely upsetting.
"Emery has a degenerative disease. We want Emery to live the fullest, most rich and successful and happy life that he can and we put in a tremendous amount of effort in order to make that happen," she said. "To be able to go on a family holiday, we have to work three times harder to ensure that everything goes safely and smoothly."
Schultz says she'd only fly with Air Canada again under certain assurances of how her family will be treated.
The transport minister has said major changes are coming this spring to strengthen the rules for passenger protection, something this family says is long overdue.
Schultz wants to ensure that no one else has to deal with "the fear that we experienced dealing with Air Canada, the uncertainty that we experienced, but also the loss of the time wrapping up our amazing family holiday."
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