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Juliette Beegle, 15, and Her Family Asked to Leave Airplane After Emergency Landing. Was It Because She’s Autistic?

Passenger plane flying above cloudsI’m sure that some of you saw this article about Juliette Beegle, the 15-year-old kicked off an United Airlines airplane with her family, ostensibly because she’s autistic. (This article is another good one that covers the story, and the comments are very interesting.)

I say “ostensibly” because the message board discussion that I’ve been watching on this story has had people point out that the call to have the plane make an emergency landing and have Juliette Beegle and her family disembark may have been made for a neurotypical person too.

Let’s take a look at Juliette Beegle’s story.

Juliette Beegle’s Story – The Basics

Juliette Beegle does not communicate using words, and her frustration levels can get high, especially if she hasn’t eaten. On the day in question, she hadn’t eaten before getting on the airplane, and didn’t want to eat any of the snacks that her mother, Donna Beegle, had brought. Sensing that acting-out behaviour (I don’t like the term “meltdown”) was imminent, and knowing that something hot to eat would calm Juliette down, Donna requested a hot meal from the flight staff. She was told that only first class passengers received hot meals, but that they could offer her a cold sandwich.

Donna and her husband explained what kind of acting-out behaviour Juliette might go into if she couldn’t get a hot meal, including that she might scratch lash out and scratch. The crew eventually brought a hot meal from first class, which calmed Juliette down. But not long after, the plane landed in Salt Lake City, and Juliette Beegle and her family were escorted off the plane. They were rebooked on another carrier (presumably at no cost to them) to continue their trip. Read more here

Juliette Beegle – The Discussion

The discussion that I’ve been watching about this has been very interesting. There’s been  acknowledgement among most of the participants that airlines in general seem to know very little about good (or even adequate) customer service for disabled people. As people who work outside the industry (most of us, anyway) we don’t know what kind of disability training airline employees get, but there are enough examples of it being seemingly absent in their dealings with disabled people that definitely make ableism in the airline industry a trend. Airports are becoming a bit more responsive to challenges involved with autism and flying by offering “dry runs” through airports for families, to help autistic family members to see what’s involved with flying and to help the rest of the family fine-tune the plan for handling the trip through the airport, but there’s still a long way to go.

There was general agreement that the captain and airline staff overreacted.

However, even from some participants that said this, there was another perspective.

For safety reasons, because of the age we live in, airlines are very cautious about everything right now. A woman who did have some experience with the airline industry pointed out that even a small request that deviates from normal routines, like serving a hot meal to a passenger that doesn’t normally get one when meal service isn’t on, keeps the staff from performing other functions that they need to be doing at that point in the flight and sets a dangerous precedent of “You made an exception for that person – why can’t you fill my special request?”

As well, the family basically threatened that Juliette Beegle may become violent if she didn’t get what she want. Autistic or neurotypical, that may have been a risk that the pilot felt that he/she couldn’t take.  After all, Donna said that Juliette would be okay if she got a hot meal, but what if that wasn’t the case? What if her frustration continued to escalate and she actually did scratch another passenger?

But, as another person asked, was it reasonable of the parents to expect that the airline could produce hot food for Juliette Beegle on a dime? Knowing that hot food was what could calm Juliette Beegle before she got to the point that she scratched, was it not up to them to either make arrangements with the airline to have use of the microwave and bring something on board that could be heated up, or to carry food on board in a container that would keep it hot the length of the flight?

Those sorts of questions need to be asked when any sort of person with special needs is traveling by air, not just an autistic person. I think it’s reasonable to expect disabled passengers to ask themselves, “What if there’s a chance that, due to my disability, I need something in the air that the staff may not be able to provide?” and to either do what they what they can to bring it on board (admittedly more and more difficult due to carry-on restrictions) or to call the airline prior to the travel date, explain the requirement, and see what can be worked out.

No one can plan for everything, of course. But I don’t think that in the moment when everyone’s guard is up is the moment to start explaining the finer points of autism and making what can come across as threats, as one of the passengers on Juliette Beegle’s flight talked about:

“Really I saw it as a threat to the airline and the flight attendants to say, ‘Well if we don’t get this, this is what’s going to happen,”

It’s an interesting perspective.

Juliet Beegle – To What Extent Do Airlines Have the Duty to Accommodate?

Should airline disability training include at least enough on autism so that if flight crew are alerted that acting-out behaviour is imminent and there’s something simple that they can do, like give a hot meal to a person that normally wouldn’t get one, that they should do it?

I think so. That’s pretty basic stuff. If the pilot and crew had received some autism training, they might have tried the first alternative suggested by the people who knew Juliette Beegle best sooner, seen her calm for a longer period and been satisfied that she was going to stay calm, alleviating the need to land the plane.

However, airlines need to take the potential for physical violence from anyone seriously, especially in cases where they can’t help so easily.  I think that the emergency landing and deplaning the family was probably an overreaction in this case, because Juliette Beegle’s parents were there to talk about how she normally doesn’t have issues with flying, how this trip had been different because she hadn’t eaten beforehand, and could vouch for how a hot meal generally calmed her – it wasn’t as if this was a passenger traveling alone who said, “I’m anxious, I need a hot meal or I might scratch people” with no other information to inform their decision.

It comes down to that idea of balancing everyone’s rights, which isn’t always difficult to do – but sometimes it really is.

Juliette Beegle – Do Disabled People Have a Responsibility?

I thought about this a lot.

I think that disabled people (or caregivers) need to be mindful that we have to know what it is that we need to function optimally and have a personal plan, to the greatest extent possible, for the times for the times, right or wrong, that we may not be able to get what we need.  I think that this is part of disability empowerment.

We also need to know how to identify when the way that people, trained or untrained, treat us crosses the line into unacceptable. As we saw from this case,  sometimes you can make an argument that a bad outcome is due to an institution’s decisions, sometimes you can argue that it was due to the disabled person’s decisions (or their caregiver’s), sometimes you can argue that it’s both…but sometimes it’s very clearly the institution’s (see this post by William Peace for examples involving airlines).

The discussion I was following on Juliette Beegle’s story got a lot into blame, but I don’t think I like looking at it like that. I think that there are lessons to be learned from it for the airlines and for travelers.

What do you think?

 

About Sarah

Due to a stroke, I've walked with a cane since I was 22 (I'm 36 now)...but I'm so much more than just the girl with the cane.

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  • I think this is the best unpacking of all the issues and questions about this incident I have seen so far. Beyond that, I do think that a disabled person’s responsibility includes some reasonable planning for the possibility that “reasonable accommodations” and accessibility fail. They fail so often it’s kind of foolish not to plan for it. However, the people and institutions who are supposed to provide accessibility and accommodations need to know that our contingency plans don’t relieve them of responsibility. Some of the comments I read seemed to think that, placing all responsibility on the parents (on behalf of Juliette). The other thing I would add is that getting a hot meal for Juliette turned out to be a reasonable modification of policy, not an impossibility, which is how many commenters characterized it. The only reason the problem got out of hand is that they resisted modifying a policy that had little functional impact. Once they gave in, everything was okay. If, on the other hand, the parents had said, “Juliette will lash out and scratch if she can’t spend the flight in the cockpit with the crew,” well that would NOT be reasonable. Unusual doesn’t = unreasonable.

    • Thank you, Andrew. This was a tough one to think out, because I didn’t want to come across like I was blaming the victim (particularly since Juliette herself had such little agency, ultimately, in how the whole thing turned out), or to suggest that disabled parents or their caregivers have the responsibility to be constantly policing airlines before flights asking, “What do you know about x? Have the flight staff had training?” It’s a fine line.

      Somehow the disability community and the airlines need to get to a point of trust (and it *is* going to involve much more training on the airline side, I think) where disabled people (or caregivers) board with the airline’s trust that they’ve done everything that they can to guard in advance against any issues that may arise, and where the parents trust that should unexpected issues arise, the flight staff have at least basic disability sensitivity training and will make any reasonable accommodations that they can to help – with everyone mindful that the safety of everyone on the airline needs to be of primary consideration.

      There are legitimate reasons why that level of trust isn’t there for disabled people who fly. But I think that there are a lot of layers to this case that the family should consider before it decides whether to go ahead with the lawsuit against UA.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      • Jackie Rose

        I was nearly punched by an Autistic young man having a violent meltdown at an Autism support group. What I know is once someone with Autism gets to the point of meltdown they can’t be controlled. What about people like myself who have been traumatized by a violent meltdown? I doubt I’m the only one in this situation, as schools now have to train teachers how to restrain students having violent meltdowns. If we complain we get told we aren’t understanding or ableist.

        What if I were on board and started crying, would the mother point at me and say I was being more of a disturbance, would I as so many times before be made an example of? Forced to leave receiving the message as I did in special ed that my feelings of fear towards violent acting out students were my not being understanding enough. I’ve gone through this mentally several times since I first heard of this story.

        What would I do because so many times I’ve been treated as a villain for not wanting to be hurt by someone with a mental disability. How about other passengers who had been victims of violence, should they just understand. I do appreciate Juliette is a victim in this as well. What I don’t understand is what was a pilot supposed to do in a lose-lose situation? What am I supposed to do when encountered with this to avoid being yelled at by the parent of a Autistic child for having prejudice? I can’t control my anxiety without medication.

        It seems everyone should have perfect control of themselves and their emotions around an Autistic person, because they cannot control themselves. After getting PTSD from years of being shamed for having natural reactions to special ed students creating threatening situations I don’t know what the right thing to do is anymore. No one should be shamed for having fear. That’s what I believe this comes down to. Juliette’s mom using people’s fear to make demands. Is it not emotional abuse when a parent of an Autistic child uses it?

        • Hello Jackie

          I remember reading about your story in the comments section of one of the articles I read. Thank you for coming and telling your story. I’m sorry that you were assaulted and that it’s caused such trauma for you.

          I think that Juliette’s mom was scared for her daughter and not thinking about much else. Moms do that. But I understand why it looks that way to you.

          I don’t think you’re a villain, and I’m sorry that people have made you out to be one. You were hit by someone. It was scary, scary enough to give you PTSD. The person happened to be autistic. That’s all.

          You’re not a bad person because being hit scared you.

          For your own mental health, however (assuming you haven’t already), talk to a doctor about how you’re feeling. There are ways to get over the PTSD, to get over the fear, and to find some peace.

          Don’t let people shame you, because you haven’t done anything wrong. But you deserve some peace – talk to your doctor about the best way to deal with these fears. I don’t think that you want to carry this anymore, am I right?

          Be well. 🙂

  • Airlines in the US are notorious for lacking accommodations based on ADA. In fact the Feds get over 20,000 complaints a year about the failure to accommodate. I cannpt judge this situation but I do know many people with wheelchair access issues, electricity for suction pumps and O2 generators, etc……essential for travel. I would suggest to be very specific about needs to the booking agent, explain all needs in detail and make sure they will accommodate ahead of time. Every airline is different, fly only those who agree to accommodate and have the ability to do so. If there is an issue complain formally to the regulatory agency.

    • Yes. These things are, of course, straight ADA violations, and I’d be hitting the ground running to the Feds if I encountered any of these. Is there an airline that you and your family prefer, or that at least seems like the least of all the evils when it comes to failure to accommodate? The worst that’s happened to me when I’ve flown (knock wood) is that when I tried to preboard with my cane, they told me to sit down, and then asked later when I boarded with my section why I didn’t preboard…I’m pretty sure that was United Airlines…

      • Never flew with Adam, it’s like putting an ironing board in regular chair. They cannot accommodate his reclining wheelchair.

  • Radial

    This was, by far, one of the best articles about the situation I’ve read – this is a difficult situation. At the very least, the airlines could have been more polite in their approach. One of the difficulties here, though, is that Autism training may not have helped accommodate the need. How could they have predicted, even with autism training, that someone who didn’t pre-order a hot meal would need one? What one person with autism needs to be calm or solve an imminent “meltdown” or as you put it acting out is going to be different. And, what one person with autism might need, might also be upsetting to the next person with autism (for example, one person with autism could require a well-lit area, another a place with dimmed lights – how do we balance that out?) Also, working with people who may become aggressive or scratch, that can also vary from one person to the next. Perhaps what is needed is more clear cut policies and training both for institutions and for families – policies as to what are the responsibilities of the person to provide certain things and that of the business, institution or entity. Also, just overall training in respect (although airlines today are much more in a position to respond according to security guidelines in general. Flying is really a security nightmare, and all people really have to have a measure of preparedness, let alone people, whether for medical or behavior reasons may have last minute unplanned for circumstances. I even saw the pilot of the flight have his considerably more than 3 oz. container of contact lens solution be confiscated for security reasons – he said: “I need this to fly. I’m the pilot.” Sorry, it was more than 3 oz. How about, for those situations where someone might need a 3 oz. fluid container, offer those for sale so that people who have a medical reason, an upset toddler who could easily be calmed with milk or juice, can put something in that container, etc. Training would be helpful, but also just much more clear policies, as well as more clarity as to what might warrant the need to deplane someone. I know that any kind of argument or disagreement with a flight attendant can be seen as a reason to ask someone to leave a plane. For example, one thing I’ve seen in cases where parents of crying children are asked to leave isn’t just the crying, but that the parents wanted to hold the child rather than follow the policy that children must be in their seatbelts and securely fastened. Whether or not the airlines could accommodate the warm meal right away is unknown – it may be that they could, but they had to serve everyone who had pre-ordered and ensure that other requests made in advance happened first, then they could accommodate – that would have seemed reasonable, to me. However, knowing that the young girl didn’t eat hot food prior to getting on the plane (refused) tells me that there were other things that were contributing to the situation. The family also mentioned in one article a blood sugar issue. That alone could have been a medical liability – and the fact that something was needed right away – again, in my experience, if something is needed right away, that brings a lot of unpredictability to the table for all involve – flight crew and passengers. It’s just hard to know in this case.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Radial. You’ve made an excellent point that runs along the lines of the autism acceptance movement – “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. Needs can vary drastically even between people who are at approximately the same place on the autism spectrum. I like the idea of delineating responsibilities more clearly, along with general training in disability sensitivity for airlines…there are many trainings out there for people who work in service industries that are surprisingly comprehensive in the scope of disabilities that they cover and the situations that may arise that could be easily adapted to airlines. I’m sure that these sorts of trainings do get used, actually – I’m not sure whether it’s just hit or miss as to who’s getting them, or whether people aren’t confident, or whether the demands of service on an airplane and good customer service for disabled people (some would argue good customer service in general) are becoming incompatible as security does become tighter and tighter. From discussions that I’ve had, it does sound like there’s some fear around disabled people and how they might react on an airplane that’s maybe causing overreactions like the one we saw in the Deegle case. At any rate, it’s going to require some change from the top-down in airlines, and that’s going to be a significant challenge – as all attempts to eliminate ableism are. 🙁

  • Radial

    I think it should also be mentioned that the family is suing for more training – the Mom is an national and award-winning speaker and trainer. Her website is here: http://www.combarriers.com/

    • That’s very interesting. Do you mean that she’s going to try to get more training for the UA flight staff?

      • Radial

        I am not sure if it is specific to UA flight staff or the airlines in general. Either way, I don’t think extra training is ever a bad thing.

  • Erin Kernohan-Berning

    Seems United is building a track record: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/walk-off-the-earth-singer-sarah-blackwood-kicked-off-u-s-flight-over-crying-son-1.3091165

    Very well written analysis. I think a little compassion can go along way, from all involved.

    • Hi Erin!

      Nice to see you here! Thank you for your comment!

      I read your link and heard the mom interviewed on As It Happens tonight…it seems to me that the two stories are kind of similar in that they’re not necessarily *all* about what the media is making them about (autism, a crying baby) but something that happened while the parents were trying to comfort family members in distress that triggered a safety concern. Thinking of Radial’s comment, I heard in the interview that the mother had the squirming baby on her lap while the plane was taxiing, and that she was later told that she had to have him restrained under her belt – but she obviously didn’t know that, so this seems like a fail on the airline’s part…why wasn’t it explained to her?

      If breaking these safety policies is going to result in removal from a plane, people need to know what the policies are…the lack of transparency is bothersome.

      • Erin Kernohan-Berning

        I agree. I feel like when a lot of this stuff happens, it seems to be an escalation from a lack of communication. The cabin crew knows the rules inside out – they have to. But the passengers, aside from the obligatory and somewhat cursory in flight safety talk, really have no idea and shouldn’t be expected to. But I think what happens with people who work in a very rule oriented system is that they assume because they know the rules, that everyone knows the rules, which is very much not the case.

        I think airlines would benefit greatly from design thinking, which looks at processes through an empathetic lens.

        I’ve been enjoying reading through your blog!

        • Thank you for reading, Erin! I’m never sure how many local readers I have, so it’s always nice to hear from them. 🙂

  • Amanda S. Mills

    I believe the mother could have handled it better (her choice to almost threaten violent meltdown caused the landing, not the teen) Yet, as the young has a disability,I think it was reasonable to ask for an easily accessible accommodation. that by law the airline had a duty to provide without having a major over-reaction or the mother needing to beg, plead, and then threaten. Better training is in order,

    • Hi Amanda…yes, I think this is really it, in a nutshell. The mother implied that there could be violence, and all bets are really off when *anyone* does that. But maybe it wouldn’t have gotten to that point if training had taught the staff that not all autistic people are going to require the same accommodations, and provided one that was easily in their power to provide, rather than staying inflexible about it for the sake of policy. I really hope that United Airlines learns something from this.

      Thank you for the comment!

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