One of the jobs of a disabled writer working for the comment section of a newspaper is to wade into any public fuss that is being made about any disability-centric story that hits the headlines. It emerged this morning that, in February, a disabled pilot’s prosthetic arm broke off as he was landing a Flybe plane carrying 47 passengers at Belfast City Airport.
Friends sent me the story, knowing I would want to be familiar with it if, as seemed likely, there was an outcry about a one-armed man being allowed to fly an aeroplane or protests were made about disabled people being employed in potentially dangerous jobs. In that case, I’d need to write a piece defending the rights of disabled workers.
But, I am thrilled to see, there has been no such outcry and consequently there is no fuss into which to wade. And that in itself is worth reporting. It shows that, in 2014, the idea of a disabled person doing a job as important as piloting an aeroplane, and being able to cope with that job going wrong, is no longer shocking.
The reports of the incident are all rather dull. After an eye-catching headline – and “Disabled Pilot’s Arm Falls Off” is always going to be an eye-catching headline – there really isn’t much else to write about. The prosthetic hand remained stuck to one part of the controls, so the pilot simply used his other hand to land the plane with a slight bump. There was a co-pilot ready to take over if he was needed, but he wasn’t. No one was to blame, and Flybe has used the routine investigation into the incident – and the publicity created by that eye-catching headline – to reaffirm its commitment to offering equal opportunities employment.
In theory the incident suggests that there’s a debate to be had about the right of disabled people to fly planes versus the right of passengers to be safe on them, but in reality this is a debate that we’re never likely to need to have. Any disabled pilot has to meet the same physical standards as an able-bodied pilot, in the sense that they have to be able to fly a plane just as well, and there’s no talk of that changing – even among those, like me, who are passionate advocates of people with disabilities in any and all workplaces. I would not be allowed to be a pilot, for example, because my body just doesn’t work well enough. I wouldn’t be safe and neither would the passengers.
But the passengers in the Dash 8 plane that landed in Belfast six months ago were as safe as they would be with any able-bodied pilot. Able-bodied pilots don’t have prosthetic arms, of course, but many have glasses and what happened doesn’t seem to be any more serious than a pilot’s glasses falling off and cracking. Actually, it’s probably less dangerous than that would be – a pilot who suddenly can’t see well might not be able to simply swap hands and land his or her plane safely, as the pilot in the Dash 8 did.
It is crucial that disabled journalists, like me, spend a lot of our time pointing out how much progress there is still to make in the disabled community’s struggle for equality. But it’s helpful, too, to note when progress has been made. A few years ago, the story of a disabled pilot whose arm separated from his body while he was landing an aeroplane might well have caused a hysterical reaction. Now we scarcely take more notice than we would do of the story of an able-bodied pilot whose arm got cramp. That’s progress.