Stearn Hodge says he will never forget the humiliation of having to drag his body across the floor of a hotel room during what should be a holiday celebrating his 43rd wedding anniversary – because a security officer at Calgary International Airport and United Airlines confiscated the batteries he needed to operate a portable scooter.
"Having to crawl across the floor in front of my wife is the most humiliating thing I can think of," Hodge said. "It exposes how real my disability is … I have not been the same since."
The retired 68-year-old contractor Kelowna, B.C. lost his left arm and right leg in an accident at work in 1984. He now has a portable scooter powered by lithium batteries.
But on a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, on February 26, 2017, a Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) agent and a United Airlines employee told Hodge to remove the $ 2,000 battery from his scooter and fly without it as well as its spare battery.
In making the complaint, both employees cited safety concerns.
Stearn Hodge shows how he had to crawl when he did not have his scooter:
Lithium-ion batteries are a potential fire hazard, but global standards issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) allow people with disabilities to travel with compact lithium batteries for medical devices in their carry-on luggage.
Hodge said no one from CATSA or United Airlines would hear him or read IATA documents that he had printed, showing that his batteries are allowed on board if an airline gives prior authorization. Hodge received this permission.
"They're taking my legs – and not just that, my dignity," Hodge said.
He can only use a prosthetic leg for a short period due to the discomfort and risk of infection, he said.
A few months earlier, Hodge almost had their batteries seized in a WestJet fly. But "seconds" before the takeoff – and after he suffered a panic attack – Hodge permission was granted to take them on board.
He has now hired a lawyer and is struggling to have his case heard before the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
A spokeswoman for an Ottawa-based disability advocacy organization says it is "frustrating" that Canada's airline industry appears to ignore hard-won protections for people with disabilities.
"It has been a long struggle to ensure that mobility devices – or any device used to accommodate a person with a disability – can be transported [a plane]"said Terrance Green of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
"When security can – even with the regulations in force – take advantage of what would otherwise be able to get into the aircraft, this leaves people with disabilities very vulnerable."
& # 39; Get a wheelchair & # 39;
When the CATSA agent seized his batteries in Calgary, the clerk suggested it was not a big problem, Mr. Hodge said.
"I still remember the CATSA agent saying," Well, you could get a wheelchair. "" How can a one-armed guy just drive a wheelchair? "Hodge asked. "How am I going to go down a ramp and brake with one hand? But that should not even have to go up."
Hodge's wife had recently undergone cancer treatment that affected her spine, and she was unable to push a wheelchair to her husband.
Hodge said he asked a United Airlines agent to go to the security post as he called the airline earlier and was assured that it was okay to bring his battery and a spare on board.
But the United Airlines employee who came to the side of the security officer.
Consequently, a three-week trip that should be a celebration with his wife resulted in Hodge spending much of his vacation confined in his bed.
To perform basic personal hygiene, he was forced to crawl across the floor from the hotel room to the bathroom.
"A birthday is to remember how you fell in love … and keep that magic alive," Hodge said. "And these things have been denied. I'm crawling on the floor and it's pathetic."
A United Airlines spokesman told Go Public that he could not comment on Hodge's experience since he wants his case heard by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
In an e-mail sent to Hodge by the airline, Tatricia Orija, a grievance dispatcher, wrote that "it appears we were violating federal disability requirements," offering Hodge and his wife an $ 800 travel certificate.
She also apologized for the "inconvenience".
"Inconvenience is when it rains on your vacation," Hodge said. "This was a … moment of life change for me and my wife."
WestJet offers travel credit
Three months before the United incident on November 27, 2016, Hodge also encountered battery issues while traveling to Cancun, Mexico.
In that case, a WestJet employee initially told him that he could carry the batteries in hand luggage, but when he arrived at the security station, a CATSA agent said that the batteries had to be in the checked baggage.
"Under federal airline law, this is the worst place you want to get," Hodge said. "Because if a problem develops with these batteries, they do not know where they are and will only find out when it's too late."
Minutes before his departure, a WestJet official confirmed that the batteries could get on the plane.
In an email to Hodge, WestJet's spokesperson, Morgan Bell, wrote, "Although I can not change your past experience, I'd like to offer you a $ 350 future travel credit as a good gesture will."
WestJet said it could not answer questions from Go Public, as Hodge named the airline in the case he wants to hear.
CATSA also would not resolve Go Public issues, citing Hodge's complaint.
The agency provided Hodge with a transcript of a taped call with customer service agent Justine Drouin, who apologizes to Hodge and says that "all the selection officers will undergo a briefing."
It's like playing Russian roulette & # 39;
Hodge and his wife travel at least once or twice a year and say that the only place they face problems with their batteries is in Canada.
"I've traveled through Europe, the United States and Mexico since 2015 with these batteries and I've never been detained or harassed because of them. It's only in Canada that I was relentlessly detained," Hodge said.
He estimates that this has happened more than a dozen times in the past two years, saying it now causes severe anxiety.
"When I go through the checkpoint, I start vibrating now, I do not know what I'm going to get, it's like playing Russian roulette."
An attack on the dignity of a person & # 39;
Green, of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, said that although he is satisfied, there are protections in place for people with disabilities who are traveling, these protections need to be enforced.
"This is an assault on a person's dignity," Green said, noting that his organization has been struggling for transportation issues for four decades.
"In 1979, the government of the day said:" Yes, we will make our transportation system accessible, "he said. "Here we are … 40 years later and the same barriers are in shipping for Canadians with disabilities."
Green, who is visually impaired, said security agents question the battery of his laptop, which allows him to "speak" when turned on. He said he gets "many emails and phone calls" from people with disabilities who were bothered at the airport.
"It happens a lot," Green said. "You make complaints, the first thing that happens is that airlines deny it."
Complaints to Transportation Agency
Public Public asked the Canadian Transportation Agency, which regulates air, rail and sea travel, how often people have filed complaints related to disabilities in the last three years.
A spokesman said the agency received 583 accessibility complaints related to air travel during that time – with less than one percent related to batteries. And those numbers have steadily increased since 2016.
Most complaints are from passengers who had expensive mobility devices – scooters and wheelchairs – damaged during loading and unloading.
Federal Court Hearing
In September last year, the Canadian Human Rights Commission forwarded Hodge's complaint to the Canadian Transportation Agency. However, the agency has no power to award general damages beyond the expenses paid.
On May 9, Hodge's attorney, John Burns, will ask a federal court judge to force the commission to hear the case.
"It is a failure of the Canadian Human Rights Commission to grant access to the remedy that the law provides," Burns said.
The Canadian Human Rights Act allows for up to $ 20,000 in damages for each pain and suffering account, and up to another $ 20,000 if the discrimination is "intentional or reckless."
"This sends a very clear message to airlines and everyone involved," Burns said. "People with disabilities should be taken seriously. You do not take someone's legs off and then describe them as an inconvenience. No, this is an injury."
"Human rights violations can not go unchallenged"
Hodge is optimistic he will eventually have his day before the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
It's an expensive endeavor. In order to cover the legal costs, he had to put up for sale a Corvette that he worked for years. But it's a fight he says he has to have – not just for himself but for so many others with disabilities.
"The thing I would love more than compensation," said Hodge, "is the [legal] decision that someone can go and say, "You did it here, you can do it for me."
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