I blogged about disability discrimination by airlines not long after I launched this blog (https://www.girlwiththecane.com/physical-disabilities-1/ ), when I learned that sometimes airlines insist on breaking down electric wheelchairs to put into the luggage hold for a flight even when it’s not necessary. I also talked about a story where an airline returned a wheelchair to it’s owner unassembled at the end of the trip and just said, “Sorry”.
I’ve heard about other stories of disability discrimination by airlines since then.
Disability Discrimination by Airlines: Physical Disability
William Peace regularly talks about stories of disability discrimination by airlines in his blog, “Bad Cripple”. Peace is a paraplegic that regularly travels by airplane. In a post that astounded me (http://www.badcripple.blogspot.ca/2012/06/cant-you-walk-little-bit.html), he talked about an experience where airline staff that were supposed to be assisting him to exist the plane said:
- “Just walk a little bit to get to the wheelchair.”
- “You can’t walk just a little bit?”
- “You mean he cannot walk at all? What do we do? How do we get him out of the seat?” (This after he’d told the staff repeatedly that he needed a straight-back wheelchair to get off the plane and out to his own wheelchair).
He was on the plane for 45 minutes after it landed before they figured out how to disembark him. That could make a person late enough to miss a connecting flight, particularly if they have to board that flight in a wheelchair.
And according to Peace, it’s not far from how he’s normally treated as a passenger in a wheelchair:
“When one travels via any American carrier and uses a wheelchair it is an invitation for abuse. There is a deeply entrenched bias against people with a disability in the airline industry–especially paralyzed people who are perceived as a burden and flight safety risk. European based airline carriers are even worse. What I wrote about pales in comparison to other experiences I have had. More than once I have crawled out of a plane in frustration and anger.” (bolding mine)
Disability Discrimination by Airlines: Other Disabilities
Peace’s blog also has stories about disability discrimination by airlines against people with autism, people with intellectual disabilities, and, most recently, a story that’s gotten a lot of attention about American Airlines refusing to let a 16-year-old with Down’s Syndrome and his family fly. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/09/teen-with-down-syndrome-barred-from-american-airlines-flight.html
Joan and Robert Vanderhorst and certain that their son, Bede, is the latest target of disability discrimination by airlines. The family has flown together many times without incident. The only difference this time was that they decided to fly first class. They were apparently barred from flying because the pilot was concerned that Bede was too unruly to fly to be seated so close to the cockpit. There was a concern that he could become a disruption if the pilot had to make an emergency landing. Video of Bede that Joan took while the family was being informed of this decision shows him sitting quietly at the gate.
The family was rebooked on a United flight. They were put in the back row of economy class, and no one was seated around them.
From the media acounts…it’s suspect at best. Peace has much stronger feelings:
He’s been tracking these things for much longer than I have. I’m more inclined to go with his assessment that American Airlines simply didn’t want someone with Down’s Syndrome in first class on the airplane…perhaps not even on the airplane at all.
What to Do About It?
I’ve been lucky (very lucky, apparently)…I’ve not had any truly negative experiences with airlines since I’ve had my stoke, and I’ve flown several times. It does seem that at the very least the policies and procedures around assisting passengers with disabilities need to be updated, and that airline and airport staff need to undergo mandatory disability sensitivity training. But who will enforce this, and handle complaints?
Peace says that he complains to the Department of Justice when he experiences profound disability discrimination by airlines, but that it doesn’t do much good. Who do you complain to when the DOJ won’t do anything?
The fact that no one will stand up to the airlines about these injustices revictimizes the people that go through them. And sometimes there really is no choice but to fly – it’s like making someone go back to an abuser and say, “I need you…please don’t hurt me.”
If you think I’m being melodramatic, go back and read Peace’s words again. He’s crawled off a plane rather than put up with the way the airlines treat him. I don’t know what was going on, to put him in that headspace, but I’d argue that those experiences were trauma-inducing. He might disagree (making him, as I’ve suspected, a far stronger person than I am.)
But I think we can all agree that disability discrimination by airlines has to stop. Somehow, they must be held responsible for these actions.