My humanity has been dealt a grave disservice. My dignity burns every time I recall the experience. The story reeks of insensitivity, harassment and discrimination. And it is terribly disconcerting that the humiliating episode happened to a person with a disability with what is regarded as a world-class airline.
My name is Jose Cabaltera, American citizen, resident of the Philippines. On December 13, I flew from Manila to San Francisco. I took flights CX904 on the 13th and CX872 on the 14th under booking reference number ZLZKF9.
I arrived at the airport close to 2am. Ciara looked at me, saw I was in a wheelchair and proceeded to ask her colleague at the next counter whether my assistive device counted towards my baggage allowance. I figured, ‘Ciara is new. She has never checked in a wheelchair bound passenger before,’ and I patiently let her learn on the job.
Ciara’s second question to me was, ‘do you have an assistant traveling with you?’ Though the question is commonplace in the Philippines for disabled people, I was intrigued with her query. I stood alone before her counter with the airport pusher off to the side, handed her a single reservation confirmation and one passport. I affirmed, ‘yes. I’m travelling alone.’
The agent’s third question threw me off, ‘do you need assistance in the restroom? Can you go to the bathroom all by yourself?’ I became a bit embarrassed and thoroughly confused. With all of my solo travels over the last two decades I had never once been asked this question.
I assumed when I bought the ticket that most reputable international carriers keep aisle chairs on board their crafts for passengers such as myself who require special assistance. Before purchasing the ticket, I had posed the question to the agent who accepted my payment whether or not aisle chairs would be made available during the flight. I was assured that they would be.
Furthermore, I could not understand why this embarrassing in depth questioning about my bodily functions was not brought up before purchase and out of earshot from the public.
I responded, ‘if you push me in an aisle chair and get me to the restroom, I can handle everything inside on my own.’ I presumed the worst: am I capable of getting inside the small cubicles? Am I capable of releasing waste from my body on my own?
She let me finish and proceeded to explain in detail, ‘How will you use the restroom inside the plane? The crew will not help you inside the restroom.’ I was mortified. What details did she expect from me? I told her, my eyes welling up with disgust, ‘it’s a two hour flight to Hong Kong! I’ll take care of everything beforehand! Just give me a boarding pass and I’ll handle the second leg when in Hong Kong.’
This episode did not end here. Ciara peered at her screen with a countenance of disbelief then left her post. Several minutes passed, the line behind me whizzed by and another agent approached me, introduced herself and posed the very similar question, ‘Sir, are you able to use the the restroom independently?’ At this point I was humiliated. I didn’t know if I was going to be allowed on this flight. I was no longer sure if should expect an aisle chair to be stowed inside the craft. Maybe I was misunderstood when I bought the ticket?
This repeated questioning was abhorrent and out of line. These women saw no resolution with my truthful answers. Nor did they allow me the dignity to lower their voices in the terminal or take me aside in private to discuss with me the details that they required. At this point I no longer had a clue how I should answer. All I knew was that despite their narrow minded image of disabled people and their obvious lack of contact with those of us who live with disabilities and travel independently, I was determined to say and do anything to get home for Christmas while forced to remain level-headed in the face of discrimination and ignorance lest my rude behaviour or inappropriate comments would keep me grounded that morning. And still, this episode doesn’t end there.
Ciara processes my boarding passes. I head to the gate with a couple hours to spare. I get comfortable in a seat and close my eyes. I’m exhausted from shame and disgrace.
Minutes before boarding, an agent comes to me and tags my wheelchair for a gate check. I transfer back into my chair and ask that agent (who I believe is Ciara again) in a polite and forgiving manner, ‘are we about ready to pre board? She nods and as I begin to push myself to the gate she asks me one more time, ‘are you sure you can use the restroom independently?’ I nod, bound and determined to get to San Francisco. At the gate again, I hand over my boarding pass and another agent approaches and asks, ‘we’d like to verify that you are able to use the restroom without assistance inside the plane?’ I scrape together my remaining dignity and muse, bored and tired of providing the same answer over and over again, and respond, ‘unless you intend to join me there..’ she giggles like a schoolgirl and backs off. then a male Cathay employee approaches me, and asked me one final time if I’ll need assistance with the bathrooms on board the plane. Exasperated I exclaim, ‘NO!’ ‘We just need to make sure,’ he flippantly responds, turns away and proceeds down the jetway.
I follow him, second guessing myself, ‘did I make the right decision? Am I going to get stranded? Should I pee before I get on the plane?’
An aisle chair is brought to the plane door. The crew greets me but I don’t look at anyone in the face. I’m ashamed. I believe this crew has discussed my bowels and fears I cannot take care of myself.
I transfer from wheelchair to aisle chair to the plane’s chair without assistance - as I usually do. I’m feeling in my heart that this crew wants nothing to do with me. I hop over to my window seat, pull up my hoodie in humiliation and try to forget what went on the previous few hours. During the flight I did nothing, asked for nothing, didn’t look at anyone in the face. The incessant questioning left me feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable in the seat that I had purchased.
We land in Hong Kong. Members of the flight crew bring the aisle chair from behind. Surprised, I ask, ‘has that chair been on board the entire time?’ One woman says yes. ‘Then why would I be asked repeatedly in Manila whether or not I am able to use the restroom without assistance?’ Looking confused, one inquired, ‘who asked you?’ ‘Three different people in Manila,’ I responded, ‘and one of the flight crew from this flight.’ No answers were given.
In the end i thought I could let this episode go. But it has haunted me throughout my vacation. My humanity has been dealt a grave disservice. My dignity burns every time I recall that experience. The story reeks of insensitivity, harassment and discrimination. And it is terribly disconcerting that the humiliating episode happened to a person with a disability with what is regarded as a world-class airline.