Disability advocate ‘humiliated’ by treatment on Air Canada flight to Hawaii

Ottawa disability rights advocate says he was embarrassed and humiliated by the treatment he received from Air Canada staff who were unprepared to care for a man in a wheelchair.

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Max Brault hoped that the Air Canada business class flight he had booked to Hawaii would be the trip of a lifetime for him and his wife, two weeks in an island paradise to attend his stepson’s wedding.

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But the Ottawa disability advocate says he was embarrassed and humiliated by the treatment he received from Air Canada staff who were unprepared to deal with a man in a wheelchair, although Brault had checked and rechecked to make sure the airline was aware of his particular needs.

He was so angry and embarrassed that he says it took him months to decide to tell his story.

“I don’t like to show weakness. I like people to think I have my stuff together,” said Brault, Vice President and Accessibility Consultant at BDO Canada and former Senior Advisor on Accessibility Issues for Infrastructure Canada.

“But to say that openly is to admit that I had a moment of weakness. I know that I fight for people with disabilities. But I’m humbled by it. I am absolutely humbled.

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It’s an uncomfortable position for Brault, the former executive producer of a show called AccessabiliTV and co-chair of the National Council of Disabled Federal Employees.

“What really hurts me the most is that I did everything right,” Brault said. “I was so hard on my travel agent. I said to him, ‘Make sure you double check. Triple check….’ It was a trip we dreamed of and it turned into a nightmare.

Brault, 52, has used a wheelchair since his twenties due to his degenerative spinal muscular atrophy. He’s a seasoned traveler and knows the requirements for traveling with a wheelchair, especially a wheelchair powered by lithium-ion batteries like the smallest “hybrid” wheelchair he’s taken to Hawaii.

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But when he and his wife, Laurie, arrived at the Ottawa airport for their 7 a.m. flight on April 14, the airline threatened not to let him board.

“Will your husband need help getting on the plane?” he said the gate attendant had asked.

Shocked, Brault replied, “What are you talking about? My file must be updated with all my medical needs and requirements.

“The system has nothing about your needs,” Brault replied.

She then had him fill out and refile the paperwork for the batteries, which he had already done when booking the tickets.

Worse still, at the time of boarding, the airline did not have a special device called the Eagle Lift. The lift holds a disabled person in a sling and is narrow enough to roll down the aisle of an airplane, then pivots to lower the passenger into the seat. Instead, airline employees lifted Brault and carried him aboard the plane to his seat. At one point they dropped him and he injured his elbow on the armrest.

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Frustratingly, the same issues occurred at stops in Toronto and Vancouver. In Vancouver, Air Canada staff misplaced Brault’s wheelchair, causing the couple to nearly miss their onward flight to Honolulu. This flight had to be held for 45 minutes and again Brault had to be transported to his seat by staff.

“I like to have things squared. When people look at me as the bad guy, like I’m the bad guy, it really pisses me off,” Brault said.

“I have become the quintessential disabled person that everyone stereotypes. The crusty guy in the wheelchair. I am a fun loving guy. I like talking to people. But when the third person in a row says to me, ‘Why didn’t you…’, I start to lose my mind.

The couple paid $4,200 each for their round-trip business class fares. Air Canada didn’t even offer a partial refund.

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“I paid for everything first class. And I got nothing.

“It still hurts. It took me a long time to get over it,” said Brault, who conducted accessibility workshops and in 2019 assessed Ottawa LRS accessibility for this newspaper. (He gave it an A.)

In an emailed response to this newspaper Thursday afternoon, Air Canada admitted to mishandling Brault’s flight.

“Although we generally deal directly with our customers, we can tell you that the service these customers received was clearly not up to our normal level and we very much regret this,” the airline said in a statement. “We have been in contact with them to apologize and also to offer them a gesture of goodwill in compensation for the difficulties they encountered on this part of their journey.

“For your information, we transport tens of thousands of customers with mobility aids each year and we recognize our obligations to ensure a seamless journey for them. Normally that is the case, but in this case we do not have not provided our usual high level of customer care and service and we have followed up internally to strengthen our procedures and ensure greater consistency in the future.

Brault said Thursday afternoon he was satisfied with Air Canada’s response, but had yet to be contacted directly by the airline.

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About Antoine L. Cassell

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