By Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News ServiceApril 6, 2009
Air Canada is challenging a deaf, blind man’s contention that he has the right to travel alone.
OTTAWA — In a case that balances passenger safety and the rights of the disabled, Air Canada is challenging a deaf and blind man’s contention that he should be allowed to fly without an attendant.
The airline will argue in Federal Court that not allowing Eddy Morten to fly alone is justified discrimination.
Morten of Burnaby, B.C., counters that he has a system for safe air travel with his service dog, he has been self-sufficient all his life, and that he has made many past trips on planes, trains and buses.
“I have never needed a babysitter,” Morten, a father of two and a Paralympic bronze medallist in judo, wrote in an e-mail.
“Air Canada routinely allows people who are blind, people who cannot walk and people who may be very disabled due to aging to travel unattended. Why not me?”
Air Canada is fighting Morten in court after losing a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision in January.
The tribunal did not order the airline to allow Morten to travel alone, but said he had the right to be assessed for self-reliance rather than automatically ordered to bring an attendant.
The tribunal, ruling that Air Canada had not met its obligation to accommodate Morten to the point of “undue hardship,” ordered the airline to pay Morten $10,000 in damages. Air Canada is not contesting the award.
“It’s the principle we’re concerned about,” said the air line’s spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick. “It comes down to the safety of the disabled passenger and other passengers on the aircraft.” Fitzpatrick cited the recent rescue of U.S. Airways passengers in the Hudson River as an example of a successful and quick evacuation.
The dispute between Air Canada and Morten began five years ago, when he unsuccessfully tried to book a flight from Vancouver to San Francisco without being accompanied by an assistant.
He says he was “disempowered” by the rebuff and that he should not have to shoulder the cost of hiring an attendant. While Air Canada policy has recently changed to permit attendants to travel for free domestically, the concession does not apply to international travel.
The airline’s test of self-reliance is the ability to be able to receive and understand safety information in an emergency evacuation or a sudden or rapid cabin depressurization, said the tribunal decision.
Air Canada policy does permit other disabled passengers to travel without attendants, including those who are blind but not deaf, or deaf but not blind, noted the tribunal. Those with mental and mobility disabilities can also be classified as self-reliant.
The vice-president of the Alliance of Equality for Blind Canadians said Monday that financially strapped Air Canada should be spending its limited resources more wisely than on fighting a disabled man who wants to travel independently.
“There should be no blanket exclusions,” said John Rae, who believes that a person’s declaration they are self-reliant should be enough. Barring that, each
case should be individually assessed, particularly since there are varying degrees of impairment, he said.
Morten, who was born deaf but with good vision, has Usher’s Syndrome, a condition which caused him to gradually lose his sight. Now in his late 40s, he is completely blind in his left eye and he has severely limited vision in his right eye.
Morten testified before the tribunal that he knows airline safety procedures and would be able to find the emergency exits by following the lights along the aisle. He also travels with pre-printed file cards containing such phrases as “I am deaf/blind, to talk to me, please write on my palm in large block letters.”
He also says that he could see an oxygen mask if it fell in front of him, and knows how to use a life vest if necessary.
The airline will also argue in court that the human rights tribunal overstepped its jurisdiction when it ruled on the case.
Air Canada said the proper body to decide is the Canadian Transportation Agency, which ruled in 2005 that the airline was justified in discriminating against Morten.
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