Muscular dystrophy patient forced to crawl through snow as hotel staff unable to carry him from cab
By Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen January 6, 2014 8:18 AM
Ottawa resident Blaine Cameron, who uses a wheelchair because of Becker muscular dystrophy, had to crawl through snow to a hotel after a wheelchair lift on a shuttle bus was not working and airport staff shrugged off his pleas for help when a huge storm grounded his plane from Florida at LaGuardia Airport.
Photograph by: JULIE OLIVER , OTTAWA CITIZEN
OTTAWA — Many people have horror stories to tell of holiday travels during the past few wintry weeks. But Blaine Cameron’s travel ordeal could set a new bar for holiday travel from hell.
The Ottawa man, who has Becker muscular dystrophy, which leaves him weak and dependent on a wheelchair, was returning to Ottawa from a family vacation in Florida when his travel plans ran up against the huge winter storm that ground parts of the Northeastern U.S. and Canada to a halt late last week.
When he landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, he was helped out of the plane with a manual wheelchair and staff retrieved his power chair so he could get to his connecting flight. That flight was cancelled and, from there, things went steadily downhill.
That was about 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 2. Over the next eight or so hours, Cameron would be left at the airport while other passengers were shuttled to a hotel because the wheelchair lift on the shuttle bus wasn’t working. He would be out in the howling wind trying to flag down an accessible ride after airport staff shrugged and told him good luck when he asked for help, and, eventually, he would be forced to crawl through the snow partway into a hotel after a taxi got stuck and attempts to carry him failed, leaving him lying on the ground.
He was not in a hotel room until about 3 a.m. Friday.
Cameron, 41, who arrived home Saturday morning, said it will take a while for him to regain strength after the ordeal.
“I am just glad to be home and that this is over with.”
The Carleton humanities student says he understands there was a storm and airport, airline and hotel staff were dealing with extreme weather and unusual delays, but he said the ball was dropped on many levels, leaving him to cope largely on his own while other passengers went to a hotel to await their rescheduled flight.
“I shouldn’t have had to jump through the hoops that I had to jump through. That is a form of able-ism (discrimination against people with disabilities).”
Cameron said it is not generally the case, but during his multi-hour ordeal trying to get from LaGuardia to a nearby hotel, he found “there wasn’t an understanding of my situation and the vulnerability of my situation. I was left on my own to make those arrangements.”
The hotel to which WestJet Airlines sent passengers after its Jan. 2 flight was cancelled sent two shuttle buses to pick them up, but neither one had a working wheelchair lift. Another was offered, but never arrived. Eventually, Cameron was told to get an accessible cab and the fare would be paid. But when he went looking for one — by now it was the middle of the night — he was simply pointed in the direction by Port Authority officials and told there may or may not be an accessible cab there. After talking to a cab driver, Cameron was given a number of an accessible taxi dispatcher and one eventually arrived.
But the cab driver got stuck at the start of the driveway to the Hampton Inn LaGuardia and went for help to try to get Cameron to the hotel. He was carried awkwardly for a while and then left on the ground when two employees were unable to carry the 160-pound man further.
At one point, he said: “I took it upon myself to get on my hands and knees and crawl to the entrance.” A third employee arrived and they dragged him in.
Cameron said he was briefly lying on the floor of the lobby waiting for someone to retrieve his power wheelchair, soaking wet and exhausted, while several desk staff stood at their stations seemingly ignoring him.
“There was no offer of blankets or hot chocolate or any assistance. I had never seen such behaviour before. Normally when someone is in a vulnerable position people are more than willing to offer their help. This was just bizarre to me.”
Cameron said he eventually received an apology from the hotel. No one was available from the hotel Saturday to comment on case.
But a spokesman for WestJet — the airline that arranged for the hotel stay — said he was horrified to hear of Cameron’s ordeal and wanted to talk to him.
“The fact that a shuttle driver couldn’t accommodate him doesn’t change the fact that one of our guests had a very poor experience, and we would very much like to speak with him to discuss it and find out if we could have done things differently to assist him,” said WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer.
Palmer, who spoke to Cameron over the weekend, said WestJet would go over his experience “to understand where the breakdowns happened, what could and should have been done differently, and how we can ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Palmer said the process will involve staff at LaGuardia as well as WestJet’s third-party contractor there that handles customers in wheelchairs.
“We take this very seriously. It should never have happened and we need to do everything possible to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”