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

Content Note: Airline travel issues, ableism

Cartoon airplane flies through the sky. Keyword: Hannah Cohen

Image Description: Cartoon airplane flies through the sky.

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I’m sure that some of you have heard about Juliette Beegle, the 15-year-old kicked off an United Airlines airplane with her family, ostensibly because she’s autistic.

(Oregon Live also covered Juliette Beegle’s 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”, but have no problem with other people that do) was imminent, and knowing that something hot to eat would calm Juliette, 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 did calm Juliette. 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 about Juliette Beegle’s story.

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 wouldn’t otherwise get one (especially outside the meal service period), 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?

And, 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 a passenger on Juliette Beegle’s flight observed:

“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 travelling 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 travellers.

What do you think?