Blind woman fights for discrimination-free travel

Asia-Pacific, August 11 2011

Jakarta, Indonesia: Eight months have passed, but the words remain as clear as ever in Rina Prasarani’s head.

“If something happens to you, we will not be responsible,” a Lion Air flight attendant told Rina on a flight from Jakarta to Denpasar in December, as the crew forced her to sign a statement relieving them of any liability because she is blind person.

“For me, those words were a threat. It seemed as though they were willing something bad to happen,” said Rina, who lost her sight as a child because of retinitis pigmentosa. “It is inappropriate for an airline to say something like that. They are in the service business after all.”

The event prompted what has now become a battle to end discrimination against people with disabilities in the transportation industry. Rina soon made contact with other disabled people, and found that her experience was hardly an isolated case.

Despite regulations and government pledges, she said, people with disabilities are treated like second-class citizens and not just by airlines.

“There should be officers standing by to guide disabled people, even to the check-in counter,” Rina said. “I once tried to board a plane without any assistance. I ended up stumbling into other people, and when I reached the check-in counter, I could sense that people were staring at me. I felt embarrassed.”

Saharudin Daming, from the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said the entire aviation industry was guilty of ignoring the basic rights of people living with disabilities.

“Even though there are signs of improvement, efforts have been minimal,” he said. “At airports, for example, accessibility for disabled people is judged only on the number of wheelchairs provided, which is not supposed to be the only measurement. There are already toilets specifically for disabled people, but the main problem at airports is service from the entrance to the exit.”

While wheelchairs are at times provided, he said, many people still end up having to be carried because of a lack of ramps in airports.

“Airlines, meanwhile, mainly discriminate in the service provided by their staff,” he said. “They don’t have any knowledge about how to treat people with special needs. There is a culture of treating them like a nuisance, which has resulted in unethical behavior, such as lying to get them to sign an illness statement.”

Last week, Transportation Minister Freddy Numberi, said the 2009 Transportation Law mandated special treatment for people with disabilities. He called on all transportation operators, especially airlines, to implement the law.

“Disabled people are not ill. They are just the same as us,” he said. “However, they have some limited abilities and need special attention. They don’t need to be pitied, but have equal rights and obligations. To fulfill those, we need to provide a service that accommodates their needs.”

Freddy suggested airlines allocate special seats for disabled people. “There should be special seating for disabled people so they don’t have to sit far from the exits. Whether there are disabled passengers or not, those seats should be available only for them,” he said.

Rina said that people with disabilities were also being discriminated against in terms of access to information. She said there was little quality audio instruction at the airport or on planes.

“Instructions should be more descriptive,” Rina said. “For instance, if they’re talking about life jackets, then they should guide our hands to feel it. Or when pointing out the toilet, don’t say ‘the toilet is over there,’ but rather ‘the toilet is three seats behind you.’ ”

“Airport officials are supposed to provide warnings on the floor like the ones in malls or hospitals,” she said. “We can feel different textures with our feet signaling that we are approaching stairs, poles or intersections.”

Rina’s struggle has paved the way for some reform in the industry. Lion Air said that it no longer forced people with disabilities to sign statements, and Sriwijaya Air recently pioneered the use of Braille in its in flight safety information.

Toto Nursatyo, commercial director of Sriwijaya Air, said facilities for disabled people were not new. “We have established procedures to assist disabled people,” he said. “We have already allocated seats two rows after the doors. However, if there are no disabled people aboard the plane then we sell the seats to others.”

For Rina, however, a change in attitude is more important than just making facilities available. “Whether we mention that we are disabled or not, those chairs need to be available,” she said.

“I still feel very optimistic that things will change, as long as decision makers and trainers are willing to change their perspectives, too,” she said.

“These days, a civilized company with a high profile knows that how it treats its customers will have an effect on profits.”


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