N INCIDENT OF DISCRIMINATION AND SHAME AT THE RANCHI AIRPORT
Via~ Manisha Gupta
Yesterday, at the Ranchi airport, an adolescent with special needs, was in great distress. He had had a very uncomfortable car ride to the airport. By the time he had gone through security check and reached the gate (almost an hour ahead of boarding), he seemed to be in the throes of hunger, thirst, anxiety and confusion.
His parents obviously knew how to handle his meltdown – with patience, some cajoling, some stern-ness, many hugs etc. And the other passengers were stopping by to ask if they needed any help or support.
This caught the attention of the #indigoairlines staff, who walked upto the trio, and warned them that he would not let them board, if the child did not quieten down and become ‘normal’.
By the time the boarding began, the child had been fed. He had had many sips of juice and water. His parents had successfully given him his medicine and he seemed ready…except for some big displays of general teenage assertiveness.
Then we witnessed the full display of brute authority and power.
The Indigo staff announced that the child would not be allowed to take the flight. That he was a risk to other passengers. That he would have to become ‘normal’, before he could be travel-worthy. And the staff then went on to state something on lines of ‘behaviours such as this, and that of drunk passengers, deems them unfit to travel.’
He was immediately gheraoed by other passengers. They opposed him resolutely. They assured the staff that as co-travellers, they had no objection to the child and his parents boarding the flight. Several went on to the Indigo airline website and challenged the Indigo manager to calibrate his decision with corresponding statements in the rule book.
There was a delegation of doctors who were taking the same flight. They asked the ground staff to get the airport doctor and let him/her take a call on the fitness of the child to travel. They offered to provide full support to the child and his parents, if any health episode were to occur mid-air. “We are doctors traveling with this child and his family. Now let him board,” they said.
Other doctors, teachers, government officials emerged from the widening ring of passengers. They held up their mobile phones with news articles, Twitter posts on supreme court judgements on how no airline could discriminate against passengers with disabilities.
“This child is in uncontrollable. He is in a state of panic,” the Indigo manager kept shouting and telling everyone. But all we could see was a young adolescent, sitting very quietly on a wheel chair, terror-striken by how he was being called out as a risk to the normal world. “The only person who is in panic is you,” a woman passenger retorted.
“I am a government official and I can tell you that it is this child’s right to travel. You cannot discriminate against him,” a senior passenger said. “This is my decision and you cannot do anything about it,” the manager said very sharply.
‘Why don’t you confer with the captain?’ ‘ Please call your manager’. ‘His normal is not the same as your normal’. ‘Look, he has travelled many times before on flights. He was a just having a bad day, he is fine now.’ ‘ Yes, please let him travel’…
Threats, pleas, dialogue, negotiations, hands folded in request — nothing from the parents and circle of passengers worked in the face of that one person who had made up his mind last evening to fully exercise his power to exclude a child who did not fit into his definition of ‘normal’, ‘safe’ and ‘fit’ people.
Then, at the end of it all, the Indigo flight from Ranchi to Hyderabad departed, leaving behind three courageous Indians at the boarding terminal, who probably fight everyday for love, respect and dignity. The security guard locked and secured the boarding gate with an iron padlet and chains, even as the mother pleaded from the other side of the glass door. The other passengers, including us, slowly dispersed to catch our own flights.
It was late night. Ours was probably the last flight out. As I stepped on the chute to board, I caught a last glimpse of this family – a father, mother and child on a wheelchair, standing alone in a large, empty and deserted terminal, ring-fenced by airport staff, guards and police.
In those 45 minutes of argument, temper, rage and contestation, not once did the parents lose their dignity or got enraged or spoke one irrational word.
“Do you know what it means to be a parent to a special child,” the mother had asked the airline manager in a very fraught moment. “Do you think as a mother, I would ever let my child harm himself or anyone?” This was the most gut wrenching statement we could have heard on the eve of #mothersday
Truth is, India is no country for mothers or children. No country for mothers who are different, No country for mothers who are raising children who are different.