The Simon Heng Column

This week, Ryanair were criticised, when the captain expelled 14 visually impaired passengers from his aircraft on the grounds that they were a safety risk: he claimed that he could only carry four disabled people on one flight. It reminded me of the only flight I have taken since becoming a wheelchair user.

To get into the aircraft, I was lifted – no hoists in airports, apparently – into a wheelchair narrow enough to pass down the aisle of the aircraft, which looked like a wheelie bin without plastic sides, and then lifted by three burly airport workers into my seat. I noticed that they left the aircraft-accessible wheelchair at the airport. It took 10 minutes to reverse the process, to get me off the aircraft at the other end.

At the time, I remember thinking that, if there was an emergency, I was going to be last in line for evacuation, even if the cabin crew and any heroes among the passengers felt like rescuing me. I resigned myself to a horrific death, by fire, smoke inhalation or sheer boredom.

But thinking about it, there are plenty of situations where disabled people are potentially, and inadvertently, putting themselves at risk: in any multi-storey building, we are told that, in the event of a fire, not to use the lifts. So how would I escape? If any thought has been given to emergency procedures for the mobility impaired, they provide an assembly point on each floor. Presumably so that the emergency services will know where to look for the bodies.

Apparently, the Ministry of Defence thought about their wheelchair users, and came up with the idea of providing wheelchair-sized fireproof cabinets on each floor. I thought that they should be labelled “Ovens”.

Life is all about informed choice, and now even the government wants to let us take more risks. Maybe the best solution would be a disclaimer form: “I am aware that this building/aircraft has inadequate evacuation procedures for people with impairments. I am so desperate to use these facilities that I am willing to risk death or horrific injury.”

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