Irish Paralympian’s Wheelchair Damaged On Journey To Tokyo

With the Olympic Games in Tokyo recently coming to a close, it will soon be time for the world’s Paralympians to take center stage in the Japanese capital. Such athletes are already beginning to make their way to this year’s Paralympic Games. Among these incredible sportspeople is Irish swimmer Patrick Flanagan, who was understandably upset to find that his wheelchair had been damaged while in transit at London Heathrow.

London Heathrow Airport
Flanagan learned of the damage to his chair at Heathrow, where he was connecting onward to Tokyo. Photo: London Heathrow Airport

Completely broken

Patrick Flanagan is one of five swimmers representing Ireland at the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. According to Sky News, he will race in the S6 100 m backstroke and 400 m freestyle. World Para Swimming reports that the S6 classification is for athletes with mid-level physical impairment (on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the most severe).

On August 13th, Flanagan began his journey to the Paralympics from his Irish homeland, which included a stop at London Heathrow. Sadly, it was during this connection that Flanagan found that his wheelchair had been destroyed during the course of his journey to London. As he explained on Twitter, damage to the wheels left the chair ‘completely broken.’

Qatar Airways
With no direct flights to Tokyo, Flanagan’s journey took him via the British capital. Photo: Getty Images

Apologetic airport staff did provide Flanagan with a temporary replacement for his transit through the airport. However, this was oversized and a far cry from Flanagan’s custom-made chair, whose wheels had been “damaged so much that they no longer spin.”

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An impending investigation

Flanagan spoke of the ‘degrading’ experience of being offered an inadequate replacement and little more support than filling out a claim form and being sent on his way. He appealed for greater care from airlines and baggage handlers when transporting wheelchairs, explaining in another tweet that, while he has a spare, not all users have this option.

British Airways, IATA Travel Pass, Health Passport
The incident comes at a time when Heathrow is just starting to ramp up its operations following earlier terminal closures amid the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images

The Irish Paralympic team also touched on the matter, stating that “this can be the reality for people with a disability. Travel can be stressful enough without something like this happening. Wheelchairs are essential for anyone who uses them and must be treated as such. This is a blow at a bad time for Patrick.” According to the BBC, a Heathrow spokesperson added:

We will work with the airline and the origin airport as a priority to investigate how the damage occurred and how it can be avoided in the future. At Heathrow, we are determined to provide a welcoming and accessible airport that ensures all passengers can travel in the way they choose with the dignity and care they expect.”

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Striving to be an accessible airport

Heathrow has been on a mission to make the airport as accessible as possible for almost a decade. It began its work in the aftermath of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, during which it welcomed a peak of 2,100 Paralympic athletes and officials in a single day.

Heathrow Wheelchair World Record
2018 saw Heathrow host a wheelchair-based world record attempt. Photo: London Heathrow Airport

This resulted in a series of permanent accessibility improvements at the UK’s busiest airport. These included more specialist ‘ambilifts,’ an increased number of wheelchairs on-site, and, interestingly, additional training on handling specialist wheelchairs.

More recently, in November 2018, Heathrow underlined its commitment to disability causes by hosting a world record attempt. This saw a group of 100 wheelchair users beat the record for the heaviest weight pulled by a wheelchair-based team when they managed to haul a 127.6-tonne British Airways Boeing 787-9 ‘Dreamliner’ over 100 meters!

What do you make of this incident? How do you think airports can improve the passenger experience for wheelchair users? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.