Jeeja Ghosh, a teacher from Kolkata, has been a regular at India’s largest conference on Inclusive Education — ‘the North South Dialogue’. This year’s 4th edition in Goa was no different — Jeeja had been invited to address delegates from 22 countries for one of the sessions.
But she was in for a rude shock on February 20, 2012. She was comfortably seated after boarding SpiceJet flight SG305 when she noticed some commotion. Flight attendants requested her boarding pass and asked her to accompany them. Jeeja was deplaned, and sent back in a car to the terminal without any explanation.
There, an already anxious Jeeja learned to her further agitation that the captain of the flight was refusing to have her on the aircraft as he felt she was not fit to travel. Jeeja’s indignant assertion that she was a frequent flyer, flying alone nationally and internationally, could not convince the airline authorities who pleaded their inability to persuade pilot Captain Utprabh Tiwari who assumed that Jeeja had a mental health problem and thus could not be allowed to fly unaccompanied.
Who is Jeeja Ghosh?
Jeeja Ghosh, 42, completed her schooling from La Martiniere for Girls and graduated from Presidency College with honours in Sociology. She also has a Masters in Social Work from Delhi University and a degree in Disability Studies from Leeds University in the UK. While studying in the UK, Jeeja lived independently.
Jeeja was born with cerebral palsy but as is evident from her academic achievements has not let her disability come in the way of her work. Despite having some difficulties with speech and balance, she is the sole bread-winner of her family and with some help from her sister Anindita, Jeeja supports their mother Jayshree. Jeeja also appeared on a popular TV game show called Didi No 1 and won – all the other competitors were able-bodied.
She has worked with the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy for more than a decade and has become the face of rights advocacy in India and abroad. She is a recipient of the Late N D Diwan Memorial Award 2007 from the National Society for Equal Opportunities for the Handicapped in Mumbai.
What is cerebral palsy?
Cerebral palsy is a disabling condition that affects thousands of babies and children every year. While some persons with CP use wheelchairs, others are able to walk with the help of crutches or braces; some people may not be able to speak at all while others may have speech which is affected. In simple terms, a person with CP has trouble controlling muscles. This is because Cerebral Palsy affects the brain which is the organ that controls the movement in our bodies, telling the body what to do and when to do it. Depending on which part of the brain is affected, a person with CP might not be able to walk, talk or eat the way persons without CP are able to.
Jeeja is not the first person with a disability to be discriminated against when it comes to air travel in India.
In October 2006, actor Prithvi Raj’s 11-year-old autistic son was prevented from boarding a flight to Chennai. Security staff for Air Deccan at the Bangalore airport prevented him from boarding on the grounds that he looked “different”, “mentally unstable” and would pose a danger to other passengers. His parents argued with the staff for 30 minutes before being allowed to board with him.
Rajiv Rajan, a human rights activist who also has cerebral palsy, brought this grave injustice to light in June 2007 when Air Sahara (now Jetlite) refused to let him board a flight in Chennai on the grounds that he did not have an escort. He was also asked to produce a fit-to-fly certificate. When Rajiv refused to do so, the airline called the police and Rajiv missed his flight to Delhi. Ironically he was on his way to attend a meeting on disability at the invitation of the Government of India! The incident and action by the airline was roundly condemned and as a result the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA) framed guidelines for disabled passengers after consulting disabled persons and airlines which came into effect in May 2009. Guidelines had only covered medically ill persons.
Still in May 2010, a 37-year-old man named Rizwan with a mental disability, travelling with his mother and sister, was refused a boarding pass by IndiGo airlines. Rizwan’s sister Nusrat Fatima Jafri was told that he was a threat to other passengers, even though the family was carrying a medical certificate. Such incidents occur every year.
Reactions to Jeeja incident
Jeeja’s co-passengers supported her when she protested being made to deplane but to no avail. The next morning the airport police asked Jeeja if she wanted to lodge a complaint. Meanwhile, representatives of the disability sector and citizens in general were outraged at the airline’s move. Javed Abidi, convener of India’s oldest advocacy group Disabled Rights Group (DRG), called for an “exemplary punishment of levying a hefty fine on SpiceJet and demanded the suspension of the pilot who discriminated against Jeeja.
For its part the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment called for an immediate inquiry into the incident and asked that the person(s) found guilty be punished. The chief commissioner for persons with disabilities issued notices to the DGCA and the airline, SpiceJet, asking what action had been taken by them to compensate Ghosh. The airline claimed that the incident was “totally inadvertent” and triggered by “some miscommunication”. It says it has launched an inquiry into the conduct of the pilot and other staff involved in the incident and promised action if they were found guilty of discrimination against Jeeja. In fact a representative from the airline visited Jeeja the day after the incident with an apology and an offer to escort her to the airport for another flight to Goa but she had taken ill after the humiliation and was not able to take the flight. .
Dignity of the disabled
Jeeja had never let her disability come in the way of her achievements — she had lived and travelled alone nationally and internationally for years before this incident took place. While on Didi No 1, Jeeja said she had won because she wanted to change the way the world judged people — by their appearance instead of by their ability.
What the law says
India has four laws pertaining to persons with disability:
*Mental Health Act of 1987
* Rehabilitation Council of India Act of 1992
*The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995
* The National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation, and Multiple Disabilities Act of 1999.
India is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD).
While progress has been made in changing attitudes in India with regards to disability, India still has some archaic laws.
In the case of air travel, the villain is Section 24A of the Aircraft Rules of 1937 which states, “No person shall knowingly carry or permit to be carried, or connive at the carriage of, a person suffering from any mental disorder or epilepsy in any aircraft.”
However activists say the UNCRPD overrides such laws. Further civil aviation laws and DGCA rules protect and aim to facilitate air travel of the disabled. The civil aviation law says airlines should not discriminate against disabled persons and “should provide them assistance so that they can travel with dignity and comfort”.
Airlines also cannot refuse seats to persons with “disability or reduced mobility and their assistive aids/devices, escorts and guide dogs, including their presence in the cabin...”