Air Canada broke my $30,000 motorized wheelchair. Here’s what happened next
In September, Maayan Ziv got off a flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv to find her wheelchair completely destroyed. Here he explains why – and how – we need to improve travel for disabled people
Shortly before they had me, my parents moved from Israel to New York and then moved to Toronto. In 1989, I was born with muscular dystrophy and grew up in a wheelchair. I was able to do almost everything other kids could: play with my friends at recess, perform in school plays, and film.
I graduated from Toronto Metropolitan University with a bachelor’s degree in radio and television in 2012. After graduating, I worked as a photographer for a couple of years. I returned to TMU in 2014 for a master’s degree in digital media.
After graduating, I started a company called AccessNow, an app and website that shares information about accessibility. So far, we have shared accessibility information about locations in more than 10,000 cities in 35 different countries. AccessNow can tell you, for example, whether a hotel has Accessible washrooms, a restaurant has Braille menus, or a store has accessible parking based on data collected by our team, business owners, and users around the world.
The company has since grown significantly. In 2019, AccessNow received a $2.7 million investment from the federal government. We currently have 12 full-time employees and 20-50 part-time employees depending on the project.
Today, I use an adapted motorized wheelchair for mobility. My wheelchair is the most powerful piece of technology in my life – I love it and see it as an extension of my body. My favorite function is the height function, which allows me to raise and lower the seat height. It allows me to speak at a podium, talk to people at eye level, pay for things at the cash register, and reach for buttons in elevators. There is also a recline function that allows me to recline, lean back and relax. The chair cost about $30,000, and annual maintenance can run up to $3,000.
Earlier this year, partly because of my Israeli background, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism invited me to a conference in Tel Aviv called Access Israel to learn about innovation in their travel and tourism industries. While there, I would also talk about my experience as a Canadian-Israeli tech founder who built a disability-based company. It was a great opportunity for me – several big companies like Google, Instagram, MasterCard and Royal Caribbean International would be there to talk about their achievements in accessibility. The conference would last a week, but I planned to extend my stay in Tel Aviv to cover some accessible sites and visit with family.
On September 7th, I boarded a flight to Pearson. My sister Talia, who works at AccessNow, and a personal carer traveled with me. I have had several bad experiences with my wheelchair on flights. As a teenager, on a trip to Barcelona, my chair’s motor stopped working after being damaged on the flight. I had to use an aluminum hospital transport chair during the trip. On another trip to New York with my high school, American Airlines dropped my wheelchair from the plane’s cargo door onto the tarmac.. It fell about six meters and was damaged beyond repair. I was stuck in a hotel for 48 hours with no way to get around while my classmates went to Broadway musicals.
Because of those experiences and several others, I took as many precautions as possible before traveling to Tel Aviv. I called Air Canada ahead of time and told them the weight and dimensions of my wheelchair and confirmed that it would fit on the plane. We arrived at the airport four hours early and I covered my chair with “Fragile” stickers and bubble wrap as a sign that it needs to be handled with care.
At the gate, I gave Air Canada my wheelchair and boarded the plane in an aisle chair, which is basically a skinny wheelchair with straps that make it feel somewhat like a straitjacket. We arrived in Tel Aviv about 10 hours later. Every time I get off a flight I am very worried about whether my wheelchair is damaged. It always feels like a lottery.
When I was reunited with my chair after disembarking, I was shocked—but not entirely surprised—to see that it had been brutally damaged during the flight. It looked broken, as if it had been squeezed with heavy force. The entire frame, including the backrest and seat, was folded in half. Most of the chair is steel, so something serious must have happened to it. I asked the baggage workers what happened, but no one could explain to me.
To get to baggage claim, my sister pushed me in the manual wheelchair provided by the airport, while an airport employee pushed my broken chair. After clearing customs, I had to file a claim at the airport desk, where 60 other people were trying to claim their lost luggage. There were abandoned strollers and broken suitcases everywhere. I heard one person complain that his camera was missing.
Meanwhile, I sat there in growing discomfort, completely unable to move. Because I’m used to my custom chair, my muscles don’t know what to do when I sit in something else. My feet were hanging off the ground because the footrests weren’t properly positioned on my body, and when the chair turned, the wheels hit my ankles. There was no headrest, so my neck flopped back with every tilt or turn. The chair was manual, so I needed someone else to push it, which took away my independence. I had no idea how to even get out of the airport.
At the replacement table, I tried to find out what had happened to my chair. Maybe it had fallen on the tarmac? Maybe something heavy had crushed it when they were loading the luggage? Again, no one gave me an answer. The staff couldn’t even see me because I was in a wheelchair, below table level. Airlines deal with this sort of thing all the time, but I’m not sure they understand how huge an impact this would have on my life. My chairs are basically my legs. Imagine getting off the plane in a new country and realizing that the airline has kicked you in the knee. But it’s also more than that: it helps me sit, stay steady, reach for things, and feel confident and secure.
After about five hours at the airport – submitting the baggage claim and connecting to the conference and organizing two accessible taxis to transport everything – I got to my hotel. That night, when I was finally alone in my room, sitting in the airport wheelchair next to my broken chair, I decided to post an Instagram story about what happened.
Broke as soon as I started recording. All the emotions I had had poured out. I felt like a second-class citizen, stripped of my independence and treated with such indifference as if my chair were simply lost luggage. In the two minute clip I discussed the airline’s lack of responsibility and how I was angry, exhausted and in pain and wondering how I was going to move on with my life. I posted the video and tried to get some sleep.
When Air Canada received my damage report they sent me an email which I opened the next day. It said they “sorry for the inconvenience.” It felt like a standard email sent to anyone who loses their luggage. They offered me a $300 gift card for my next trip, which only added insult to injury. Again the suggestion seemed to be that my wheelchair was just luggage and that this was just an inconvenience.
I emailed back telling Air Canada that their response indicated further carelessness and negligence. At the time, my story had gone viral and the news made it amass 54 million views in seven days. I watched it spread like wildfire. I’ve had hundreds—if not thousands—of people reach out with similar stories of mobility devices breaking, losing, or falling at airports. Support spread through social media comments, tweets, DMs, emails, texts and phone calls.
Air Canada eventually agreed to cover the cost of repairing or replacing my chair. But I would still have to do all the work – assess the damage, submit an estimate to Air Canada, custom fit it, and find another chair to use until the new one is ready. My wheelchair is nine years old and it is almost impossible to find the same parts. It may be a year before I get my new chair.
The next day the airport sent a couple of men to my hotel to try to fix the wheelchair. They took pieces off and tried to open the metal with a hammer. I could sit in it but it was painful. My legs felt fast and my neck was throbbing. But I didn’t want to sit in my room all week. I still wanted to do my job and attend the conference. Ironically, they had an interactive exhibit that mimicked some of the obstacles disabled people face at airports. I loved meeting and exchanging ideas with people at the conference, but I missed a lot of programming because of my broken wheelchair and the pain and fatigue I was experiencing.
During the rest of the trip, I was able to do a few things with the help of my damaged chair: I went to the Herzliya beach without barriers, I made a video about Tel Aviv’s lively nightlife and restaurants, and I spent time with my family. I was in tremendous pain, but I didn’t want to let the Air Canada experience get the better of me.
I think Canadian airlines need to be open about how often these incidents happen. The major US airlines have to publish these numbers that reveal it wheelchairs are damaged there 39 times a day. But in Canada, we don’t have the data to monitor how often it happens. I have heard from thousands of disabled people and this is our reality. Publishing the numbers helps create accountability. WWe also need serious investment in the training of airline workers to care for disabled customers, and that covers everything from handling mobility equipment to handling disabled people during air travel.
Since my story went public, progress has been made. Canada’s Minister of Transport and Minister of Labour, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion made public statements outlining the need to address travel issues for people with disabilities; The Canadian Human Rights Commission issued a statement recognizing the mistreatment of people with disabilities as discrimination; and Airlines for America, representing seven major US airlines, pledged to improve the accessibility of air travel. I believe we also need changes to the Accessibility Act, which was created in 2019 with the goal of an accessible Canada by 2040, so that we can be clear about how to improve travel.
I flew back to Canada on October 3rd. Air Canada went out of its way to show that it took my case seriously: it upgraded me to first class and had several people escort me during departure and arrival. But still it managed to make a big mistake. When I went to pick up my wheelchair at Pearson it never came out. I waited, but nothing happened. When I once again went to the compensation desk to inquire about my chair, I was told it was still in Tel Aviv. I was angry. I couldn’t understand how, after everything that had happened, they could still make such a huge mistake.
It took me three hours to get through the ordeal, but at one point my sister reminded me that I had put the AirTag on my chair. I used my phone to track it down; it turned out my wheelchair had been sitting on the tarmac in toronto the whole time.
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