A key Canberra delegate to the launch of Australia's $15 billion disability insurance scheme was left angry and humiliated on Saturday when local Qantas staff initially refused to check her electric wheelchair's spare battery and charger onto the plane.
On arriving at the airport at 8.30am to check in for her 10.20am business class flight to Melbourne, Anita Gordon of Harrison was told the accessory box containing the items could not be accepted as it was over the 32kg weight limit and could not be carried by one person under OH and S regulations.
"If it had to be carried then why couldn't two people carry it?" she said. "Anyway, it is on wheels."
Qantas has said sorry. "We are looking into the matter and have contacted Ms Gordon directly to resolve the issue with her. As a premium airline we pride ourselves on assisting our customers with a variety of requests and needs, including customers with disabilities," a spokeswoman said.
It took over an hour, and approval from at least three different people, before the case was finally allowed on board on Saturday morning.
Mrs Gordon said the incident was particularly galling as Qantas had been given ample notification of her special transport needs. She had supplied detailed information, including a hazardous materials declaration, to the Government contractor handling the transport arrangements for the Disability Care Australia national conference.
"Qantas staff at the airport admitted they had received that paperwork and were aware of my needs," she told Fairfax.
"What hit me the most was when, after my ticket was finally issued, a Qantas staff member walked us over to the oversized baggage depot and said 'we don't normally get people like you'.
"I responded by saying 'I didn't know I was a leper'. My nurse, who overheard the remark, said: 'I can't believe she said that; now I know why you hate flying'."
Mrs Gordon said she had been angry and humiliated when the problem first emerged. "I was cranky," she said. "My first thought was 'Oh God, here we go again. How many times do we have to fight just to have the privileges afforded those with able bodies. These [the wheelchairs] are our legs and our only hope of movement."
She could not believe it was happening while she was on her way to the launch of the biggest development for Australia's disabled community ever.
The conference was the curtain raiser for next months rollout of DisabilityCare Australia to support 460,000 people with disabilities which begins next month.
Mrs Gordon has had input into some of the new policy and was invited in recognition of her work with Disabilities ACT.
DCA, which is being funded by a 0.5 per cent increase in the Medicare levy to two per cent, will help pay for carers, new wheelchairs and home modifications. It has bipartisan support from both the ALP and the Coalition.
Mrs Gordon, along with key executives involved in the scheme, missed much of the first day of the conference.
Qantas staff at Canberra had told her that if she wanted to avoid similar problems on her flight back, booked for Monday night, she should switch to a 767 flight leaving Melbourne on Tuesday morning.
"We informed the (conference) organisers on Sunday morning and they began to work out the issues. Thank God I had no direct contact with Qantas; it was the three executives and they were all shaking their heads."
Mrs Gordon said that at one point it had been suggested (by Qantas) that the battery case be split in half. "The conference executives told them this was ridiculous; it was a battery. How do you split a battery in half."
Disability executives involved in trying to get Mrs Gordon back to Canberra included Cath Halbert, DCA's services integration chief; Gregory Featherstone of DCA; Bruce Bonyhady, the incoming chair of the DCA board and Tricia Hopkins.
"I believe they were trying to contact (Qantas CEO) Alan Joyce but I am not sure they were able to reach him.
Mrs Gordon said the matter has been referred to the Discrimination commissioner.