In October 2016, I won the Australian Young Lawyer of the Year award. The award was in recognition of my contribution to access to justice for people with disabilities, the SA Child Protection Systems Royal Commission and the profession more broadly. I had got the call in September and other than telling my immediate family and close friends, it was to be kept a secret. The award ceremony, a black-tie dinner with many esteemed guests from the legal profession, was hosted by the Tasmania Law Society in Hobart. I had not travelled to Hobart since I was a child, but I often fly from Adelaide to the Eastern States (of Australia) so the travel arrangements were of my least concern. I was far more preoccupied with choosing the ultimate formal dress, writing my acceptance speech and finding a makeup artist in Hobart (the big issues, hey!).
At the time, there were no direct flights from Adelaide to Tassie so the itinerary was to fly from Adelaide Sydney, have 45 minutes in Sydney Airport and then onto Hobart! I had planned to arrive by mid-afternoon so I would have time to get ready and have a glass of bubbles before the dinner. Arriving early also allowed a time buffer for the flights to be delayed, which all good travellers try to anticipate! The best-made plans…
With my support worker in tow, we set off for Hobart. We arrived in Sydney, absolutely fine. It was like any ordinary trip. I drove my wheelchair to the aircraft door, got awkwardly man-handled while I was transferred with the eagle lift and was put back in my wheelchair, after patiently waiting for all the walking people to get off the plane. In the stopover time, I grabbed a coffee and caught up on texts/social media (I probably should say emails and work to be more professional, but let’s be honest I just scrolled around Instagram for the whole time!).
I boarded the next plane. Again, fine. Wheelchair to the aircraft door, awkward man-handling, safely in the seat. Let’s go… or not.
One of the ground crew came and asked my support worker for some expert guidance on my wheelchair. They couldn’t get my chair into the cargo compartment. Seemed weird, but people can sometimes be a little weird about wheelchairs so no great cause for alarm. They fumbled around for a while and were being unsuccessful. Of course, their impatience to get the flight moving started to cloud their practical judgment as to how to lower the back of my chair properly to fit into the cargo compartment. They gave up and got all the boarded passengers off the plane. The stream of walking people to get off before me were exasperated and annoyed. Me too! I had an award to win and a make-up artist to see! They came to get me off the plane, and it all unravelled.
Turns out, they had changed the aircraft at the last minute and the replacement plane was smaller. That’s why my chair wouldn’t fit in cargo. Someone who is responsible for changing planes didn’t tell someone who is responsible for the people in the planes, that there was a wheelchair needing to be accommodated in the cargo compartment so that wasn’t factored in. The airline was hopeful that I could get the “next flight” to Hobart which would be the right size aircraft and decided not to give me my wheelchair back at the aircraft door. Ugh!!
So here I am, sitting in a poorly fitted wheelchair, kind flailing about, pretty immobile in the gate lounge. Not sure where my wheelchair was, pretty sure I am not going to make it to this once of a lifetime award ceremony. Oh, and did I mention I was 100% ugly crying at this point. The shock was intense and I didn’t really know what to do! I am a human rights lawyer, I specialise in disability discrimination and disability rights law. That is literally the reason I am off the win a national award and I don’t know what to bloody do! It was just shocking. I felt really small, and PS. SOMEONE GIVE ME MY WHEELCHAIR BACK!
Typical of all discrimination incidents, no one listened to me, no one gave me information about what was happening and it just became a shit show of confusion, logistical drama and stupidity! I did get my wheelchair back though, which was a great relief. At least then I could run away from them, or run over them. I wasn’t really sure what the best option was at that point!
The airline was quickly running out of options and continued to dither about. They deemed it an “emergency”, like the sort that happens in natural disasters or catastrophic events. I guess it was a disaster in some ways but one caused by idiots, not nature. All nearby airlines with available flights were called to assist. The available flights were with airlines that do not take electric wheelchairs like mine (I already knew that that’s why I wasn’t flying with them - fools!). It was like the Day of Discrimination that wouldn’t end. The Law Council were calling the airline to put pressure on them, I had some occasional moments of good advocacy and yet, none of it worked. After many hours of continued stupidity, prevailing confusion and me oscillating between hyperventilating-crying and being a good advocate, I got sent back to Adelaide on the 8pm flight.
That’s it, that’s what happens in the end. I got sent back to Adelaide! My sparkly dress, a stood up make-up artist and unopened bubbles are all history. They flew me back to Adelaide in Business Class, as though their fancy Pad Thai with real cutlery was going to make difference (ok, so it might have soothed a little bit but still not good enough!).
I got back to Adelaide in time to accept my award via Skype. I was like Julian Assange giving some weird, clandestine update from Ecuador. It was the worst (doing it via Skype, not the speech). And so, the once-in-a-lifetime event was over and I went bed.
The next day I had the worst emotional hangover ever and wanted to hide in my house with the poodles forever. I was so sad! I had a million missed calls from the airline who were scrambling in damage control over what they had done. I couldn’t care less about how bad they felt or what they wanted to do to make up for it. What I wanted (to go to the ceremony) was no longer possible, so I was done!
You might be expecting the next part of the story to be that I lodged an epic discrimination claim against the airline and you haven’t read about it because we confidentially settled for millions. Nope. I eventually did call back the airline and for a few days, I thought about making a complaint. But I never did. I didn’t go to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the media or anyone. I accepted some free flights (which I used to do some pro work for an advocacy organisation the following year) and told the airline to go away.
That’s it. Why? Because it is really hard to be discriminated against and sometimes you just can’t fight it. It sounds weird but I am sure other people with disabilities will have felt that way. Ordinary flights shouldn’t have to turn into legal dramas and discrimination shouldn’t be happening in such an accepted way, every single day.
Moral of the story:
Even though people face everyday discrimination in all sorts of boring scenarios of everyday life when they live with a disabilty, the big incidents of discrimination sting! They really hurt, can be embarrassing and can leave you feeling pretty helpless. Missing an award dinner is not a huge deal in the grand scheme of life. I recognise that there are big incidents of discrimination that some people face and they really struggle to come back from.
If you face discrimination, don’t do what I did! Call it out! Ask an advocate, lawyer or friend to help you call it out if you need. It can be really confronting but you have the right not to be treated that way. It’s important that your rights are upheld!
Oh, and you don’t have to call it out immediately but within six months (for a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission) is ideal.
If you are not sure who to call, you can call me and we can chat about how crap it feels to be discriminated against in broad daylight and then we can talk about ways for you to protect your rights!