Baroness Celia Thomas writes….The disabled man in the airport

A few days ago, it was reported that last year a paraplegic athlete, Justin Levene, shuffled through Luton Airport on his bottom because his own self-propelled wheelchair was stuck on the plane. He didn’t want to accept Luton Airport’s offer of a different non-self-propelled wheelchair, not least because of the danger of pressure sores, but also the indignity of losing his independence that had been so hard-won.

I have seen various accusations; that it was churlish, offensive, arrogant, publicity seeking – the list goes on.  However others, notably disabled people themselves, have applauded him for drawing attention to the difficulties people with disabilities face if they travel, particularly the inadequate facilities at airports. Some people have accused him of making a fuss but, until you have experienced how little people seem to consider accessibility issues, making a fuss often becomes the only thing you can do to ensure people take notice. The news coverage of Justin Levene is case in point.

This comes at the end of a week when I attended a meeting about disabled access and inclusion, with two Ministers, civil servants and disabled Peers. We were told about the new cross-departmental committee on disability, and its consultation with the Disability Charities Committee – a group I’d barely heard of.  After a bit, one of the Government-supporting Peers let fly.  He told about attending a VIP dinner at a high-end hotel in central London, only to discover that there was no accessible toilet there, but that he could be led to a bedroom some way away which had an accessible bathroom attached to it. He said he felt worthless and demeaned by that, and made sure he was dehydrated.

His point was that disabled access needs to be taken much more seriously, and can’t just rely on “goodwill” and pockets of good practice here and there to make life better for disabled people.  My other disabled colleague and I spoke about the stalling of the whole independent living agenda – accessible housing, transport, enough personal care assistants, employment etc. which is now in danger of going backwards. The answer, surely, is not to encourage us to go to court to fight for our right to live independently, a  right only afforded to those with the money and personal wherewithal to go to court. Access to justice is getting harder for disabled people, not easier, even if we do have nondiscrimination legislation.

What did the Government-supporting Peer make of this?  He reckoned that if access everywhere was much better, and seen to be better, then the rest would fall into place.  I am not nearly so sanguine, but I take his point.  The optics of disability are very important.   The man shuffling along on his bottom in  Luton Airport has done us all a huge favour.

* Celia Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '18 - 11:25am

    Going to a Liberal International event in Iceland campaigner Enid Lakeman used a wheelchair provided by the airport. Returning on a Sunday the ‘plane was late landing creating a risk that passengers would miss their last train, under-ground or over-ground.
    She was as vocal as anyone who knew her would understand.

  • Sue Sutherland 10th Nov '18 - 12:49pm

    I thought a lot about this because it was the misplacement of his own special wheelchair that caused this to happen and he refused to use airport wheelchairs as they might give him sores. I’m glad that he took this action because all too often wheelchairs are flung about and damaged and bits that are essential to comfort are lost. I think airport staff should be instructed and trained to look after wheelchairs because if they go missing or get damaged it’s like having your legs chopped off and you are helpless. Except Justin wasn’t helpless because he could use his arms to propel himself both across the airport and into the news.
    My experience of flying is that something always goes wrong so thank you Justin, so much, for getting this problem highlighted in the media.

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