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, she explains why—and how—we need to improve travel for people with disabilities
Shortly before they had me, my parents emigrated from Israel to New York and then moved to Toronto in 1989. I was born with muscular dystrophy, and I grew up using a wheelchair. I was able to do pretty much everything other kids could do: I played with my friends during recess, performed in school plays and shot photography.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and television from Toronto Metropolitan University 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.
While in graduate school, I started a company called AccessNow, an app and website that shares information about accessibility. To date, we’ve shared accessibility details about locations in over 10,000 cities across 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, using data compiled 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 anywhere between 20 to 50 part-time employees, depending on the project.
These days, I use a custom motorized wheelchair to get around. My wheelchair is the most empowering piece of technology in my life—I love it and see it as an extension of my body. My favourite function is the elevation feature, which allows me to raise and lower my seat height. It allows me to speak at a podium, talk to people at eye level, pay for things at the checkout and reach for buttons in elevators. There’s also a tilt function that lets me recline, lean back and relax. The chair cost about $30,000, and annual maintenance can be up to $3,000.
Earlier this year, partly because of my Israeli background, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism invited me to a conference in Tel Aviv called Access Israel to learn about innovations in their travel and tourism industries. While there, I would also speak about my experience as a Canadian Israeli tech founder who built a company based on disability. It was a great opportunity for me—several huge companies like Google, Instagram, MasterCard and Royal Caribbean International would be there to talk about their advancements 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 family.
On September 7, I headed to Pearson for my flight. My sister, Talia, who works at AccessNow, and a personal caregiver were travelling with me. I’ve had several bad experiences with my wheelchair on flights. During a trip to Barcelona as a teenager, the motor on my chair stopped working after being damaged on the flight. I had to use an aluminum transport chair from the hospital for the duration of the trip. On another trip to New York with my high school, American Airlines dropped my wheelchair from the cargo door of the plane onto the tarmac. It fell about six metres and was damaged beyond repair. I was stuck in the hotel for 48 hours, without any way of getting around, while my classmates went to Broadway musicals.
Because of those experiences and several others, I took as many precautions as possible before my trip to Tel Aviv. I called Air Canada in advance to give them the weight and dimensions of my wheelchair, confirming that it would fit on the plane. We arrived at the airport four hours early, and I covered my chair in “Fragile” stickers and bubble wrap to signal that it needed to be treated with care.
At the gate, I gave Air Canada my wheelchair and boarded the plane using an aisle chair, which is basically a skinny wheelchair with straps that make it feel a lot like a straitjacket. We arrived in Tel Aviv roughly 10 hours later. Every time I get off a flight, I’m extremely anxious about whether my wheelchair has been damaged. It always feels like a gamble.
When I was reunited with my chair upon exiting the plane, I was shocked—but not entirely surprised—to see that it had been brutally damaged during the flight. It looked mangled, like it had been squashed with heavy force. The entire frame, including the backrest and seat, was folded in half. The majority of the chair is made of steel, so something serious must have happened to it. I asked the baggage workers what happened, but nobody could give me an explanation.
To reach the baggage claim, my sister pushed me in a manual wheelchair provided by the airport while an airport employee pushed my broken chair. After clearing customs, I had to file a damage claim at an airport desk where 60 other people were trying to claim their lost luggage. There were abandoned strollers and broken suitcases everywhere. I overheard one person complaining about how their camera had been lost.
Meanwhile, I was sitting there in mounting discomfort, completely unable to move. Since I’m used to my custom chair, my muscles don’t know what to do when I sit in something different. My feet dangled on the ground because the footrests weren’t positioned properly for my body, and when the chair turned, the wheels bashed my ankles. There was no headrest, so my neck flopped backward with every tilt or turn. The chair was manual, so I needed someone else to push it, which stripped away my independence. I had no idea how I would even get out of the airport.
At the claims desk, I tried to find out what had happened to my chair. Maybe it had been dropped on the tarmac? Maybe something heavy had crushed it when they were loading the baggage? Again, nobody gave me an answer. The staff couldn’t even see me because I was down in the wheelchair, below the level of the desk. Airlines deal with this sort of thing all the time, but I’m not sure they understood the monumental impact this would have on my life. My chair is basically my legs. Imagine getting off a plane in a new country to discover that the airline has bashed your knees in. But it’s also more than that: it helps me sit, remain stable, reach for things and feel confident and secure.
After about five hours in the airport—filing a baggage claim, connecting with the conference and arranging two accessible taxis to transport everything—I made it 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 had happened.
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I broke down the second I started recording. All of the emotions I had been holding in came pouring out. I’d felt like a second-class citizen, having my independence stripped away and being met with such indifference, like my chair was simply lost luggage. In the two-minute clip, I discussed the airline’s lack of accountability and how I was angry, exhausted and in pain, and I mused about how I would move on with my life. I posted the video and tried to get some sleep.
After Air Canada received my damage claim, they sent me an email, which I opened the next day. It said they were “sorry for the inconvenience.” It felt like a standard email issued to anyone who loses their baggage. They offered me a $300 voucher for my next trip, which only added further insult to injury. Again, the suggestion seemed to be that my wheelchair was just luggage and that this was only an inconvenience.
I sent an email back, telling Air Canada that their response pointed to further carelessness and negligence. At that point, my story had gone viral and was picked up by the news, racking up 54 million impressions in seven days. I watched as it spread like wildfire. I had hundreds—if not thousands—of people reaching out to share similar stories about mobility devices getting broken, lost or dropped at airports. Support poured in via social media comments, tweets, DMs, emails, texts and phone calls.
Air Canada eventually agreed to cover the cost of repair or replacement of my chair. But I would still need to do all of the work—getting the damage assessed, providing Air Canada with an estimate, having it custom fitted and finding another chair to use until the new one was ready. My wheelchair is nine years old, and it will be nearly impossible to find the same parts. It might be a year before I get my new chair.
The following day, the airport sent a couple of men to my hotel to try to fix the wheelchair. They took pieces apart and used a hammer to attempt to unfold the metal. I could sit in it, but it was painful. My legs quickly went numb and my neck throbbed. But I didn’t want to sit around in my room all week. I still wanted to do my job and participate in the conference. Ironically, they had an interactive exhibit that mimicked some of the barriers people with disabilities face at airports. I loved meeting and exchanging ideas with the folks at the conference, but I missed a lot of the programming due to dealing with my broken wheelchair and the pain and fatigue I was experiencing.
For the rest of the trip, I was able to do a few things using a temporary transport chair: I went to an accessible beach in Herzliya, made a video about Tel Aviv’s lively nightlife and restaurants, and spent time with my family. I was in tremendous pain, but I didn’t want to let the experience with Air Canada defeat me.
I think there needs to be transparency in the Canadian airline industry about how often these incidents happen. Major US carriers are required to publish these numbers, which reveal that wheelchairs are damaged 39 times a day there. But, in Canada, we don’t have the data to monitor how often it happens. I’ve heard from thousands of people with disabilities, and this is our reality. Publishing the numbers will help create some accountability. We also need a serious investment in training airline employees to care for customers with disabilities, covering everything from handling mobility devices to addressing people with disabilities during air travel. The development of new procedures and infrastructure that allow people with disabilities to safely stay in their mobility devices on aircrafts would be the ideal solution.
Since my story went public, there has been some progress. The Canadian minister of transportation and minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion made public statements outlining a need to address travel issues for people with disabilities; the Canadian Human Rights Commission released a statement acknowledging the poor treatment of people with disabilities as discrimination; and Airlines for America, which represents seven major US airlines, made a pledge to improve accessibility in air travel. I believe we also need changes to the Accessibility Act, which was created in 2019 with the goal of a barrier-free Canada by 2040, to make it clear how travel will be improved.
I flew back to Canada on October 3. Air Canada did everything it could to show it took my case seriously: it upgraded me to first class and had multiple staff escorting me during departure and arrival. But it still managed to make a major mistake. When I went to collect my wheelchair at Pearson, it never came out. I waited, but nothing happened. When I went to the claims desk, once again, to find out about my chair, I was told that it was still in Tel Aviv. I was livid. I couldn’t understand how, after everything that had happened, they could still make such a colossal error.
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The ordeal took three hours to sort out, but at one point, my sister reminded me that I had put an AirTag on my chair. I used my phone to track it down; it turned out that my wheelchair had been sitting on the tarmac in Toronto all along.