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‘It was humiliating’: Paraplegic WestJet passenger pulled herself up stairs from tarmac to airplane

By Shannon Paterson

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    VANCOUVER (CTV Network) — As a former Paralympian and president of BC Adaptive Snow Sports, Sarah Morris-Probert is a frequent flier. “I like to travel. I don’t like the means of getting there at times, but I like the end results,” she said. Morris-Probert told WestJet back in April that she was a travelling with a wheelchair on a return flight between Kelowna and Cabo San Lucas. But when she arrived at the gate to fly home on Saturday, she learned there was no jet bridge to get to the plane. Passengers would be put on buses and driven out onto the tarmac, and there was a lift to get her into the plane. She wasn’t immediately concerned. “Okay that’s great, I’ve used ambu-lifts and things before,” said Morris-Probert. “So we get on the bus and we go out and discover that the lift they are referring to is two guys carrying me on a Washington aisle chair, which is a heavy chair to start with.” She argued it wasn’t safe for her to be strapped to a chair and carried up the steps into the plane, and pointed out a wheelchair ramp right there on the tarmac. “Nobody would deploy the ramp, and so I said ‘Okay, I will transfer to the bottom step, and I will lift myself up step by step,’” she said, adding fellow passengers from her bus watched as she bumped her way up the filthy metal steps to the plane. “It was humiliating, it was degrading and it was gross.” But Morris-Probert says as a high level athlete and paraplegic, she could manage it, while many others in a wheelchair could not. “So then they would have had no option but to be put in an unsafe situation and be carried on board the plane,” she said. It’s the third time in recent months an airline has failed B.C. passengers with a disability. In August, Rodney Hodgins, who uses an electric wheelchair, had to drag himself down the aisle to get off his Air Canada flight in Las Vegas. And on Nov. 10, Angela Taylor, a 74-year-old amputee from Nanaimo who uses a prosthetic leg and arm crutches to get around, was abandoned at the gate by Flair Airlines and was forced to walk to YVR customs when a promised golf cart didn’t arrive. “It’s really unforgivable,” said Morris-Probert. “It’s 2023, right? This shouldn’t be happening.” In a statement, WestJet acknowledged there should have been a jet bridge available to get Morris-Probert to her plane in Cabo. “We sincerely apologize for the handling failures Ms. Morris-Probert experienced while flying with WestJet and understand the severity of the situation. WestJet strives to ensure that any guest travelling with medical equipment such as wheelchairs is provided with a seamless travel experience and receives care and support throughout their entire journey.” The statement says when a jet bridge was unexpectedly not available, safe alternatives were offered, adding “After providing the two options that our staff are qualified and trained to provide, Ms. Morris-Probert declined all assistance from the supervisor and customer service agents.” Morris-Probert disputes that. “I would like to know what the second option was. I was one given one option, which was to be strapped to an aisle chair and carried up the stairs. Now that’s not very dignified, and it’s certainly not safe,” she said, adding the ramp was right there and could have been used to wheel her up to the plane. While the experience was disappointing, it won’t stop her from traveling. But Morris-Probert is urging all airlines to do more for passengers with disabilities. “I’d like it not to be anxiety-provoking before I travel. Spending a few hours worrying about it, how am I going to get off the flight,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to do that.”

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