Family Protests Airline’s Rejection of Special Seat for Son Who Has Cerebral Palsy

Cathay Pacific had approved the seat months before but turned it away at Pearson, says mother of boy with cerebral palsy, who cant sit up without it.

Alastair Sharp, daughter Tallula, 3, son Sebastian, 7, and wife Kara found themselves turned away from a flight to Australia at Pearson Airport last week because the airline refused to let them use Sebastian’s special seat designed to help him sit upright.

By: Michael Robinson Staff Reporter, Published on Mon Apr 25 2016

Kara has a moment with Sebastian, who was anxious to get on the Cathay Pacific plane. After the standoff about the special seat, the airline arranged for an alternative flight through Air Canada.

A Toronto familys vacation plans were temporarily grounded last week when they clashed with Cathay Pacific Airways over a special seat used by a child who has a disability.

Kara Sharp said her family faced disability discrimination twice after the Hong Kong-based airline barred her from using a specially designed seat for her 7-year-old son, Sebastian, who has cerebral palsy.

Sharp, along with her husband and two other children, had been planning to depart from Torontos Pearson Airport for Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday afternoon, when they were turned away from the gate.

We were going to see his grandparents, she said last Thursday. Sebastian is upset, stressed he doesnt want to do anything but go on the plane.

The family has routinely used the seat for international flights before, she explained, adding Sebastian cannot sit upright without it.

Sharp refused the airlines offer to use Cathays in-house five-point harness instead. She argued it was designed for children much larger than her son and wouldnt be as secure.

Their solution was to use their own five-point harness and a pillow to prop him up while we have a $4,000 special-needs seat they had pre-approved in the first place, she said. In an effort to avoid any last-minute issues, Sharp added she called Cathay four months prior to the trip and staff approved the seat, an orange-red seat called the Carrot 3.

In an emailed statement, the airline expressed how sorry it was to learn of the difficulties the Sharp family faced, but emphasized that Sebastians safety and comfort was their top priority.

Spokesperson Jennifer Pearson said reservation staff failed to provide Sharp with the correct information on car safety seats and posture support equipment.

Cathay Pacific prides itself in providing our customers with a positive travel experience and clearly we failed in this particular case, said Pearson, adding staff provided the family with hotel accommodation, meals and vouchers.

The Sharps struggle has sparked the ire of disability lawyer and accessibility advocate David Lepofsky, who said the clash with Cathay illustrates the need for a national transportation accessibility standard.

Air travel in this country is not pretty for people with disabilities, he said. The laws on the books right now are not working. We need federal legislation with teeth to ensure barriers like these do not happen again.

A spokesperson for Canadas aeronautical watchdog said airlines are responsible for their own seating policies. However, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) also requires them to provide accommodation that considers disabled passengers unique needs.

But while the CTA lays out the expectations for aircraft accessibility, whether or not a seat is safe and sound is actually up to Transport Canada.

Further, it isnt clear if foreign carriers are required to abide by Canadas accessibility standards or stick to those of their native country.

Canada should have a clear rule: If you want to land your plane on our property, you play by our rules, said Lepofsky.

Lepofskys comments were echoed by the Ontario Federation for Cerebral Palsy, a non-profit that advocates for those living with the illness.

The groups president, Victor Gascon, said the situation was unacceptable and blasted Cathay for failing to be flexible.

Cerebral palsy is one of those disabilities where one or two cases are not alike, he said. Airlines should consult with disability groups before drafting their accessibility policies, he said, so situations like these dont occur in the future.

By late Thursday evening, the Sharp family finally departed Toronto to Sydney via Vancouver, albeit via Air Canada and arranged for by Cathay.

Just got cozy for our flight, Sharp wrote above a photo caption of Sebastian tucked into his orange-red seat. Australia here we come!

The family has since touched down safely in Oz, landing on the beach shortly after their arrival. As for how they will eventually make it home, Sharp said those travel plans are still up in the air depending on whether Cathay eventually decides to clear the seat for take-off.

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