July 23, 2016
I am leaving Santiago de Chile today, and I am not ready. I would have stayed longer and I hope I will be able to come after… after a few Spanish lessons. At the Air Canada check-in desk, I am told I can’t have my wheelchair past this point and I will have to transfer to a manual wheelchair and rely on someone else to move for the next few hours before boarding. I am pissed, of course. My friend Joëlle, who is travelling with me, is pissed too. This is not how things are supposed to be. In my best Spanglish, I try to explain that I need my wheelchair until boarding. Mi silla son my legs. They tell us that there is no elevator at the gate to load my wheelchair onto the plane. I ask them ¿Dónde está el ascensor then? ¿Aquí? They answer there is no ascensor. They can’t offer any logical explanation as to why they need my wheelchair at check-in. I repeat that I need my wheelchair and that there is no reason for me to leave it at check-in. They repeat their nonsense. At one point, Joëlle and I are left by ourselves and I suggest we just run away past security. They would have to deal with me at the gate, right? I mean, they couldn’t leave my wheelchair in Santiago, could they?
We wheel and walk free towards security. We feel wild. But then, they chase us down. I stop. They repeat the same thing again. Joëlle asks them to see where they will bring my wheelchair and they agree. They show us the luggage conveyor and the small door through which my wheelchair is not going to fit. We argue some more. None of this makes any sense, but it is going nowhere, and we want to get to Montréal. I tell Joëlle that I give up. I give up, because I feel this is not a fight I can win. I give up, because I’m beginning to worry about what could happen to my wheelchair if I don’t follow their rules. Revolution aborted.
As I transfer to a large manual wheelchair I have no control over, I remember all the Chileans who told me how bad accessibility is in Chile, blaming the South American way of doing things. I guess they knew what they were talking about after all.
A very young “mobility assistant” agent working for the airport takes over my mobility. He is the only person authorized to push me around. Joëlle is not allowed to push me. I go through customs with no interaction with the custom agent altogether. He has no questions for me. He doesn’t even look at me. The intersection of disability, Canadian citizenship and whiteness makes me invisible. Or it makes me visibly non-threatening. Visibly in need of care, of assistance, of protection. That is the role I am expected to play here.
We have lots of time to kill before boarding the plane, but I can’t do much because I can’t move. I tell the “mobility assistant” (more like immobility assistant!) that he can go, that we are fine. But he says he can’t go anywhere. He must stay with us. Communication is extremely difficult because I don’t speak Spanish, so there is no way I could ask him to push me around the airport for some last-minute shopping. So Joëlle goes on the important mission to buy me a bottle of Pisco to bring home with me. After a few minutes, when I am alone with the immobility assistant, he tells me that he has to take the manual wheelchair from me. I just can’t believe it. I suppose that they are running out of wheelchairs or something but there is no way I would let them take back the wheelchair I did not – and still don’t – want. I text Joëlle: “He wants to take the wheelchair from me! Come back asap.”
I don’t like to alarm Joëlle, but I feel like it is time to escape to the women’s bathroom. It seems like a good strategy to keep the wheelchair. And also I need to pee before our 11-hour flight, like most humans do before getting on a plane for a number of hours. But because my legs were taken away from me at check-in, I can’t go by myself. Joëlle quickly makes it back with the Pisco, obviously stressed out by my text. The situation is beyond ridiculous. I tell the immobility assistant that I want to go to the bathroom. He pushes me to the entrance of the (inaccessible) bathroom. This territory, reserved to a gender that is not his, is closed off to him. Sometimes gender rules play in our favour, and suddenly Joëlle is allowed to push me. But she also needs to carry all our stuff (because, yes, the immobility assistant left when we could have used his help).
When we exit the bathroom, our immobility assistant is nowhere to be found. We are free! Until he finally find us again, only a few minutes later. The good news is that the bathroom strategy seems to have worked. He no longer wants to take back the wheelchair. We just have to wait for boarding time.
My Canadian passport in my hands, I tell myself that I am going home. In a few hours, I will be back in Canada. In a few hours, I will be fine. In a few hours, I will be a citizen again. A white Canadian citizen. With all the privileges that come with that.
After a long, restless 11 hours, we land in Toronto as the sun rises. It is summer again, and I will be reunited with my wheelchair in a few minutes. We get off the airplane and once more I sit in a large manual wheelchair, unable to move. This is normal procedure. It takes a while for the ground crew to bring me my wheelchair. Sometimes I wait 5 minutes. Sometimes 20, 30 minutes. I am used to it. This is how it works.
After we wait for I don’t know how long, an Air Canada employee asks Joelle if she wants HER wheelchair. In front of me. I am there. I am right there. But not quite there apparently. This person is talking about my wheelchair to Joëlle instead of me and doesn’t even acknowledge that the wheelchair belongs to me! And why on earth would I not want my wheelchair? Why do I have to say once again that my wheelchair is my legs? The only difference here is that it is easier to say it in English.
And then it all comes back to me. My Santiago airport experience was not something “typically South American.” For a moment, my brain chose to believe that these things don’t happen in Canada when, in fact, they have happened to me far too many times.
It all comes back to me. All the times strangers have asked my mom how old I was. All the times people have talked to the able-bodied person I am with instead of to me. All the times I haven’t been treated or seen as an autonomous person because I get around on wheels. All the times my wheelchair has been seen as a luxury and not as an essential part of who I am.
After about 15 minutes, a ground crew member appears. He looks alarmed. He says, “I’m sorry, but your wheelchair is broken.”
Once again, I am coming home with the burden of having to repair my wheelchair and fill a complaint against Air Canada.
This is not a bad luck.
This is an exceedingly common experience for wheelchair users.
This is a political and economic issue.
I have since learned that Air Canada recently laid off their Santiago airport staff and is now contracting with an agency, which helps explain why the employees at check-in were so unprepared to deal with a passenger using a wheelchair.
A quick search online also revealed that the Santiago international airport is operated by Nuevo Pudahuel, a consortium of companies made up of Aéroports de Paris, Vinci (a French construction company) and Astaldi (an Italian construction company).
Air Canada and Nuevo Pudahuel have no excuse for not investing the appropriate resources and not training their staff to ensure that wheelchair users can travel with dignity. Wheelchairs, as Canadian disability activist Tim Rose claimed this week, are not luggage.
Wheelchairs are not luggage.
 Joëlle later found out that there was an accessible washroom. Too bad the “mobility assistant” was not aware of its existence!