A stair climbing wheelchair case. How will a lawsuit of a wheelchair user against the airport be settled?
A legal dispute between Evgeny Shevko and the National Airport Minsk is going beyond a mere argument between a person and an organization. Now it is about the right of a wheelchair user to be socially active and to enjoy respect for his human dignity.
Last spring an Estonian public organization invited Evgeny Shevko to attend a workshop, and he decided to go there by plane. So began the story, the outcome of which is yet to be decided by the court of Oktyabrsky District of Minsk.
Evgeny Shevko claims compensation for emotional distress. He also claims to forbid the airport staff to use rigid, reduced-performance wheelchairs while assisting wheelchair users board a plane, as it may be unsafe for a person assisted.
“Stairs and borders will not become a surprise for you”
On the whole, the relationships between wheelchair users and the National Airport Minsk can be viewed as partner.
In 2011 the Republican Association of Wheelchair Users (RAWU), chaired by Evgeny Shevko, conducted a series of teaching workshops in the airport. 77 members of staff attended training sessions, where they were taught to accompany wheelchair users in the airport, at the stairway and on board a plane.
RAWU members acted voluntarily as potential passengers with disabilities so that the airport staff could train the necessary skills. Later, volunteers translated and helped to adapt quality standards for assistance to persons with reduced mobility (PRM) to Belarusian air transportation standards.
The standard was signed by the airport directing officials, all the parties were satisfied with a new level of cooperation, and mass media were quick to announce that Belarusian air service had reached international standards. It was in December, 2012.
Evgeny Shevko remembers the provisions of the standard by heart. For this reason in April, 2013 he fulfilled all the requirements: he informed (several times and in advance) the airport officials that he was a disabled person of group 1. He needed assistance – a special stair climbing wheelchair and accompanying while boarding the plane.
The airport has S-max stair climbing wheelchairs that comply with safety standards and that were used during training sessions a year before. Information about this wonderful vehicle can even be found on the National Airport website in the Physically Challenged Passengers section:
“S-max wheelchair (made in Great Britain). Stairs, borders and other thresholds and obstacles will not become a surprise for you and won’t spoil your trip. This wheelchair will ease the lifting and lowering of passengers up/down the steps.”
Hoping for a difference, getting the same
(Photo: due to PA “RAWU” such posters can be seen at petrol stations)
However, instead of the English wheelchair Evgeny was provided with a rigid, reduced-performance wheelchair with a safety belt that was damaged, with a high situated footrest, a hard seat and without elbow rests.
Such a hard seat can cause a disease recurrence in persons that are wheelchair users for a long period of time. Besides, it is simply uncomfortable and humiliating for an adult person to sit with his knees lifted at the level of the ears because of a high footrest. But even this is not the matter.
“It was raining, the stairway was slippery,” says Evgeny.”I wasn’t fixed in the chair, no one was holding me. When those who assisted me began to lift the chair, my legs appeared to be at a level higher than my head. An incidental obstacle under the wheel or a muscle spasm, which is quite common for wheelchair users, could result in my falling down the stairs.”
It is clear that falling down the stairs can bring about certain problems: years without a proper physical activity cause that bones become more fragile and the body less flexible.
“I asked to be provided with a proper wheelchair, corresponding to the safety standards,“ says Evgeny.”I also promised that I would sue the airport. But all I managed to achieve was that there were four people instead of two to assist me. Nothing more.”
However, the airport officials had an opportunity to settle the conflict peacefully: they were informed that Evgeny was coming back on May, 4th by plane.
But to Evgeny’s surprise nothing had changed: the same rigid chair, the same humiliating conditions.
The story speaks for itself.
(Photo: Evgeny admits that he was afraid to fall down)
“We simply have small planes with high stairs”
Airport representatives deny all the charges. According to them, the whole situation was caused by the type of the plane, which was a small passenger plane with integral stairs (that are pretty high).
“S-max wheelchair is a stair climbing chair: when the electric motor drive is activated, a lever pops out, which makes it possible for a chair to walk up/down the stairs. However, according to the technical manual the stairs should be 25,5 cm maximum, which is not the case with the above mentioned plane.”
Indeed, there is nothing to complain about. Evgeny is simply unlucky with the proportions he has. He has become a wheelchair user in the country, where small planes with high stairs fly…
There is actually one question about sizes: why do many people prefer to be those small people, who don’t wish to take trouble understanding other people’s feelings and to do something more than just an instruction? They appear to humiliate human dignity only because this subtle thing is not mentioned in any technical manual.
“Was it really no way of settling the situation when a man asked to fasten him in a chair and shared his fears?” asked the judge.
“And why didn’t the airport staff turn off the electric motor drive and lift the chair manually, just the way they had been taught at the training?” asked his question Evgeny.
Both questions were left without any answer.
Technical points of the parties are still to be thoroughly examined and proven with documents. Both parties want to know the exact, down to millimeters, height of the stairs and technical capabilities of the chair, specified by the manufacturer.
But is it really the matter?
(Photo of the parking card, designed by E.Shevko. It says that its owner has the right to stop and park at a parking place for people with disabilities. The card should be verified by showing the disabled person’s identity card. Info centre telephone number 123.)
“We are trying to change the world”
I asked Evgeny after the court hearing whether it was possible to estimate, in terms of money or man hours, the expenses on training workshops, which, unfortunately, appear to be useless.
I heard the following explanation: “As RAWU members, we simply fulfil our duty, so we don’t try to estimate the work done.”
Disabled people of group 1 undertook the duties voluntarily. Members of the association understand that the world is still not a very friendly place for wheelchair users, but they can change the situation.
“We have worked out our training session not only for the airport, we provide it for various specialists who are supposed to know how to treat and help wheelchair users, but don’t know how to do it for some reasons,” says Evgeny.”Let’s take social taxi, for example. The drivers often don’t know how to help a wheelchair user if he falls. Day care centre workers as well as personnel of centres for remedial education and rehabilitation lack the necessary skills. And I don’t even mention public transport drivers and educational and cultural institutions staff.”
But training is only a small part of all the enormous efforts that Belarusian wheelchair users make to fight high stairs and human indifference.
“In Belarus there are about 19 thousand wheelchair users, but only one out of ten can leave the house without any assistance,” explains Evgeny.”Stairlifts, that has been installed in apartment buildings until recently, are very expensive, that is why there are quite few of them. Our wheelchair users have designed a stairlift model which is 30 times cheaper than those used today, patented it and ordered Belarusian factories to produce the necessary details. There are already six such machines functioning. And on RAWU web-site a fundraising campaign is about to start in order to collect money for those who are in particular need for this kind of help.”
(Photo: a person in a wheelchair can be active and self-contained)
A wheelchair user should have the opportunity to feel comfortable and confident outside his own house. Wheelchair users have already achieved the right to priority while passing through customs control. Due to their efforts posters with telephone numbers of the on-call operator who can help fill the car have appeared on Belneftekhim petrol stations. (Belneftekhim is a Belarusian oil and chemistry concern). Together with bikers association another campaign is being prepared, aimed to help motorway service be more attentive to the needs of wheelchair users. Roadhouses will have posters with a special telephone number for delivering food right to the car. Belarusian programmers promise to create a map of barrier-free motorway service facilities. It will be available as an application for mobile phones.
“At the same time we are developing the concept of parking cards for people with disabilities,” continues Evgeny.”Today only those drivers who have a special ‘disabled person driving’ sign on the car have the right to park at a special parking place. However, some drivers do not want to have this sign on their car, and they are right in their own way. Besides, there are wheelchair users who don’t have their own car, they are passengers in someone else’s vehicle, but they as well should have the opportunity to stop at a convenient parking place. For this reason, there must be cards that will be given to a person with disabilities regardless of whether he is a driver or not… ”
The aim of all these steps is to create the environment where wheelchair users could be active, socially-engaged and self-contained. Evgeny’s example demonstrates that everything is possible: he has become the first person with cervical spine trauma in Belarus to take out a driver’s license. After he had become a wheelchair user, he graduated from the university, became chairman of the largest public association of wheelchair users in Belarus, went into sports and today he is actively engaged in various kinds of sport.
Now he only needs to cope with the high stairs of a small plane that takes off and lands in the National Airport Minsk.
Author: Irina Dergach
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