Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Disability Discrimination by Airlines - Enough is Enough

I blogged about disability discrimination by airlines not long after I launched this blog (http://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.


  1. I do not know how to end the discrimination people with a disability are subjected to when they fly. There is a deeply ingrained bias within the airline industry that will be very difficult to eradicate. To date, the fines levied by the FAA and DOJ have not been effective. Real progress has been made within the airline industry since I was first paralyzed in 1978. Getting on a plane back then was an iffy proposition at best--I was routinely denied boarding for no reason. Now I have the legal right to board a plane and my civil rights are supposedly protected but that does not mean I am treated with respect. Hence when I fly I assume I will be demeaned and belittled. Once in a while, much to my delight, that does not happen.

  2. Thank you for visiting and commenting, William. I hope that this blog didn't put you too much on the spot, but I was really annoyed by the Vanderhorst story, and what you've had to say about these things in the past has been such an eye-opener for me. I'm glad to hear that there have been some positive flying experiences for you...given what you've had to put up with, you're certainly entitled to some.

  3. I flew recently with no issues, but the friend I was visiting travels a lot and said that she's had horrible experiences on airlines adding "they're not pregnant friendly at all"

  4. I can't believe that airline employees would actually make someone crawl off of a plane to get to their wheelchair - I'm totally disgusted.

    I've flown a few times with my husband since his stroke, and we've always had good luck, but my anxiety is through the freakin' roof the second we set foot in the airport. I suspect that much of our good fortune is because our baby is with us and people feel bad as I struggle through the airport with our gear, kid, and husband-in-wheelchair, so they've always been willing to help out and be extra attentive.

    If going to the media and the offending companies and the DoJ doesn't do anything to change the treatment of people with disabilities, I think we're sort of at a loss to do anything else but keep at it and hope that we're making a difference in the long-term.

  5. My sister was so miserable when she was pregnant...I can't imagine any way that she could have flown comfortably. And I can't really imagine the airlines being all that sympathetic, no. :(

  6. They eventually brought him a straight-backed chair to get off the plane in that example I talked about...but he talked in a comment about crawling off planes in frustration in the past (which is really no better, is it?) My experiences with airlines have been good as well (knock wood), but I understand why you would be anxious. I think that some airlines might be better than others, in terms of how they treat people in wheelchairs...it would be interesting to do some research and find out...

  7. I suspect there is a significant divide between those that have limited ambulation and those that do not. As one that requires a straight back I am in a different class of people by airline standards--a class that represents work and labor--and profit loss. People who use a guide dog are often discriminated against as well. Stephen Kuusisto at Planet of the Blind has had problems with airlines. HAve you read Cruisin with Cricket? A blind woman was recently asked to leave Ann Taylor because they did not allow dogs. Her dog was a seeing eye dog.

  8. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2012/12/13/marine-double-amputee-gets-help-from-fellow-vets-angered-by-delta-airlines-treatment/