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Not-So-Friendly Skies: Autistic Teen Girl Kicked Off United Airlines Flight

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Are airlines friendly and have positive views of disabled passengers, or do they consider us “disruptive?”  I believe many within and outside the disability community are pondering this after hearing about the incident involving an autistic teen girl and her family on an United Airlines flight that has received nationwide attention.

“Disruptive” or Discrimination?:  You Be the Judge  

According to NBC News, an official complaint was filed against United Airlines after a passenger and her family were removed from an airplane due to her autistic daughter being deemed “disruptive” during the flight.  Juliette became agitated during the flight because she was hungry; her mother, Dr. Donna Beegle, asked one of the flight attendants to give Juliette something to eat to lessen her hunger pains.  Upon receiving the food, Juliette was satisfied, and returned to watching her movie as she was doing before the hunger spell began.

According to Dr. Beegle, an announcement was made that an emergency landing would take place in Salt Lake City due to a passenger on board exhibiting behavioral issues.  Police officers then boarded the plane, and escorted the Beegle family off.  A video was taken that captured the entire scene; one passenger heard on the video remarked, “It’s ridiculous.”  Another commented, “That’s going to be a lawsuit.”

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United Airlines issued the following statement:

[Its] crew made the best decision for the safety and comfort of all of our customers and elected to divert to Salt Lake City after the situation became disruptive.

Dr. Beegle filed complaints not only against United Airlines, but also to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and she plans to sue the airline.  She expressed that her legal action has less to do with receiving a monetary reward, and more about pushing for airline staff to receive better training when it comes to disabled passengers.

Ableism, Discrimination, Ignorance, & Airlines:  Commonplace Occurrences in the Mile-High Club

This is not the first incident or pending lawsuit I have read or written about concerning an airline and its discriminatory and/or inaccessibility practices against the disabled, young and old.  Though the allegations against United Airlines by Dr. Beegle has yet to be ruled in court (all accounts given surrounding this case are considered alleged until a ruling has been rendered), it struck a nerve within me, and countless others, about the possible overreaction and prejudices thrusted unfairly upon Juliette regarding her abilities to “behave appropriately” during a flight.

“Disruptive” Vs. “Tolerated” Behaviors on Flights – Comparing Examples

Should all of us who choose to fly now worry about the possibility of being escorted off a plane if we were to ask a flight attendant for something to eat because we were hungry?  Is asking something as simple as a meal or snack if a hunger spell has caused a person great distress THAT problematic for flight attendants to address properly without deeming that individual as a possible risk to harm themselves or others?  What about parents of young children – should they now be concerned that an emergency landing will be ordered and then be escorted off because their children exhibited “rowdy, strange” behavior, or that their baby cried for hours on an airplane?  Regarding these examples, would such actions and outbursts fall under the same “disruptive” and “protecting the safety and comforts” definition United Airlines gave within its statement regarding Juliette’s incident?  There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what airlines consider “disruptive” versus “tolerated” behaviors by its passengers.

I will go out on a limb and state that Juliette is probably not the first minor passenger whose parent had asked on their behalf for something they needed, whether it was food, water, or some other item/service that can be rendered to passengers; what exactly made Juliette’s need so incredibly different, and her behavior considered a great danger to those on board?  Even if Juliette’s agitation level was high due to her hunger, was that stark grounds for her to still be labeled “disruptive” after she had received her food, which allowed her to go back to enjoying her movie?  I am posing all of these hypothetical questions because I am trying to grasp how a simple request for a basic human need led to a family being removed from an airplane.

Increase in Airline Complaints, & the Failure of Airlines to Comply with the Law

There has been a great push for airlines to be more disability acceptable, due to an increase in complaints and lawsuits filed by disabled persons regarding the insensitivity and inaccessibility issues they encountered as airline passengers.  Below are the numbers pertaining to the complaints about the treatment of disabled passengers filed in 2014:

The [consumer] report also contains a tabulation of complaints filed with DOT in September [2014] against airlines regarding the treatment of passengers with disabilities.

The Department received a total of 59 disability-related complaints in September, up from the total of 53 complaints filed in September 2013, but down from the 83 complaints received in August 2014.

For the first nine months of this year, the Department received 609 disability-related complaints, up 14.3 percent from the total of 533 filed during the first nine months of 2013.

Excerpt from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report

Almost 30 years after the enactment of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in 1986, which requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop new regulations to ensure that travellers with disabilities are treated without discrimination, we see that airlines are failing to reach the ideals of this mandate.  It is 2015 – misunderstandings, prejudices, fears, etc., towards or about the disabled should not exist or be tolerated on our airplanes.  If the claims against United Airlines are held up in court to be true, it is certainly disheartening that disabled passengers are still viewed as annoyances or disruptive if crew members are asked to address a need that would not be problematic if we were able-bodied.

Final Thoughts / Sound Off

As a disabled person, it truly bothered me at how disability, and specifically autism in this case, are so misunderstood in our society.  The misperceptions about disabled persons are alive and well, and incidences like this one are endured by members of our community every day, whether we are in the sky or on solid ground.

What are your thoughts about what happened to Juliette and her family?  Does her mother have a good legal case against United Airlines?  Did the crew members respond inappropriately to Juliette’s needs?  Or did they act within the bounds for which they understood?  What was your reaction if you watched the video of the Beegle family being removed from the plane?  How do we protect our disabled youth from the level of ableism Juliette seemed to have endured?  SOUND OFF and ramp your voice about this headlining story.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of StockSnap.io)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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