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Monday, August 6, 2012

Alaska Airlines and Blatant Discrimination

A few friends sent me emails about a story that has generated online buzz. Multiple stories have appeared in various mainstream news outlets as well. Alaska Airlines has been accused of discriminating against an elderly man with a disability and his friend. The source of the story is from Facebook--a fellow passenger who was outraged by what took place. Below is the raw Facebook post. 

 I request a complete and thorough review of the actions of staff today.. at the Redmond Oregon Airport. Cameron Clark reports, from the Redmond, Oregon Airport today.. """"i witnessed today, what i consider to be the worst of humanity.
standing in line at an @alaska airlines ticket check in, in redmond oregon, i watched as a disabled/mentally and physically challenged couple were left standing in the front of a line by the ticket attendant, melissa, who didn't say a word- no "final call, redmond to seattle"-- no "if you are flying to seattle, it's too ... 
late to make this flight," etc-- nothing. 
when a different agent appeared 1/2 hour later-- the flight still had not left. i asked for a quick "side bar" with the new agent-- telling her that this couple needed some leeway-- some additional help. she quickly informed me that "we treat every single customer the exact same here"-- she was annoyed by my insistence and advocacy. i tried to explain to her that her colleague had left the man and his companion alone, without saying a word to them. that they were "different" and that it would be ok for her to make exceptions for them (uttering something like, "exceptional circumstances sometimes require, exceptional responses").
melissa finally agreed to try to get the man on the flight-- but he couldn't bring his luggage (ug).
he had a hard time walking-- no one offered him a wheelchair or asked how they could be helpful. he stumbled off toward the safety inspection line.
predictably, he didn't understand/comprehend their restriction of his luggage, and got stuck in security. 
while this was going on, the ticket attendant and myself were continuing to have quiet words about how they needed extra help-- she told me that "i didn't know the whole story"-- that he had the "same problem yesterday, showing up late to his first flight." i told her that i thought there was a real reason he was struggling to make it anywhere on time, and that this was cause for some compassion and some exceptions to rules, and some additional assistance. by now i was fully annoying her. she had her rules, and she was growing tired of my moral compass.
security ended up sending the man back, telling him in the confusion around his luggage that there was no longer enough time for him to make his airplane, without the plane running late.
the original attendant, melissa, returned, and lightly shamed the couple for being late for the second time in a row, telling them there was no way the man could get to bellingham before 9pm now.
the man and woman broke into tears. his "nervous system hurky/jurkyness" became profound. he begged her to help him. nothing.
i asked tiffany to go on with the kids, that i wanted to stick around and advocate for this couple for the 20 minutes i could and still make my own flight...
i asked the man for his name. "brent" he and his companion were easily 70 something. he was crying something fierce by now. i asked him what his condition was. he said he had late stage parkinsons, and that his companion had MS. 
i asked to speak to the on site manager- a man named "jim cook." jim listened to me politely tell him the story about the man with parkinsons, and the woman with MS, and how none of his staff did anything to offer them additional assistance when it was clear to all 20 of us in line, how much they needed it and deserved it, and then he explained to me that the "laws don't allow alaska airlines to provide anyone, for any reason "special treatments." i wrote that comment down, word for word. he responded by saying, "so great, you are going to take me completely out of context aren't you?" i said, "what other context is there?" i asked you why your staff didn't help these people, and, in that exact context, you backed up your employee who told me that everyone is treated exactly alike. he stood by this position.
the end of this story is sad to the core. after wrapping up with mr. cooke, i talked to brent for a bit longer. 
this trip- redmond to seattle/seattle to bellingham, was allowing him to see his daughter one final time, who works on the ferry system and is out on the water for most of her time-- she was scheduled to meet him in bellingham at 3pm today. he said that it was a "bucket list" item that he could no longer realize. i asked him if she could get off the ferry and wait for him tomorrow-- and he said that she was only available for this brief time today-- that he was to join her on the ferry, and that otherwise she'd be out on the water for days-- his trip was done. he couldn't re-schedule. he was simply, now, in defeat, asking for his money back.
what part of this story is "ok" in any way?
what happened to our collective sense of decency, of compassion, of our disposition to help those in need of extra help.
alaska airlines. you broke a man's heart today. you maintained your policy, and ignored an opportunity to do the right thing.
you broke my heart too.
if i knew who to contact, i would contact them and invite them to pay for this man's daughters unpaid leave, and provide her a ticket to come see her father? short of that, i know of nothing that could undo the inhumanity i witnessed today.

I have no doubt this is an accurate description of the incident. It would in part reflect my experience every time I fly. Airline personnel are routinely rude to people with a disability. When I show up at a gate I do not even need to utter a word--the gate agent sees me as nothing but extra work and a hassle to deal with. When I fly I have the plague. Using a wheelchair and flying is a miserable experience. If I am lucky and all goes smoothly I will only be delayed about an hour. If things go wrong, and they often do, much worse things can happen than just being delayed. With this background in place nothing reported above is a surprise. What is a surprise is the reaction--over 42,000 people have noted they like this story and are upset with Alaska Airlines. This will surely sound like sour grapes but where are all these out raged people when I fly and get treated like dirt by airline personnel?  I cannot think of a single incident when I was supported by a fellow passenger. Once every few years a passenger will look at me as they pass and say something to the effect they are sorry I am being treated so badly.  This summer as I waited and waited and waited for assistance well after every passenger exited the plane the pilot for the next flight looked at me puzzled and asked "Are you still waiting?" Yes, I replied. He said "You guys who use wheelchair really have it rough" and then entered the cock pit and closed the door.  

The point of my two stories is simple and will negate the sour grapes aspect of this post: when one observes an injustice speak up. Offer your support. Take the risk and tell airline personnel you are offended by the way a fellow passenger is treated. And I know this is a risk. When people fly once they enter an airport thanks to the Patriot Act they give up their civil rights. All people must endure the humiliation ritual performed by the TSA. I get crowds need to be controlled. I get people have to get from point A to point B. I get airlines need to operate efficiently and maintain rigid control of passengers. Within this structure however the rights of people with a disability can be respected. When I assert those rights I am not liked--I am deemed a "problem". Perhaps if other passengers supported me and the airlines realized this would occur my rights might not be violated in the first place. I might even be treated with respect. I hope one day to have this sort of experience.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Olympics and Disability

If the popular press is to be believed the Olympic ratings are through the roof. NBC has the broadcast rights to the Olympics and are milking the event for everything it is worth. I dislike the coverage--it is all tape delayed and I can sense the athletic stampede for corporate sponsorship. This may sound like sour grapes but it not meant as such. This is what elite athletes do and cannot blame them. This is how a small fortune can be made.

A few people with a disability are competeing. I read about a blind archer that won a gold medal. No name was provided in most news accounts--just"blind archer". No gender, no age, no nationality. Think dehumanizing. Would such a headline or brief filler about a typical athlete exist? No way. I doubt I will ever read "bipedal gold medal winner".  The press has largely ignored disability issues and sports. But this will change when Oscar Pistorius runs. Pistorius is a sensation. He is a hyped athlete, perhaps the first such athlete with a disability to exist. He is the Blade Runner, the fastest man with no legs. A great tag line if there ever was one. I have read everything I can about Pistorius. I am not impressed. I groan when I hear him say he is not disabled. I groan not because of the statement but rather the missed opportunity. There are so many other ways he could talk about disability. zlike it or not he is asked all the time. I am sure he is weary of the subject. I refuse to be critical of him. He is not an academic theorist or disability rights advocate.  He is a world class athlete. He is a South African so his experience with disability is very different from what an American would experience. In short, cut him a lot of slack--he is an athlete first and foremost.

Today started what will likely be a number of articles about Pistorius. All mention his disability first. All mention his battle to compete against typical athletes. All wonder if it is fair for him to run--many imply he has an unfair advantage with his protheses. Demeaning comments abound. In the Wall Street Journal today. One athlete was quoted as saying "It takes a lot of courage and confidence to do what he is doing".  This is typical super cripple propaganda. There is no doubt as next week progresses Pistorius will become a big story. How it will be framed will be split into two categories. First, does he have an advantage because of his protheses? I doubt this debate will be grounded in scientific reality and opinions will be screamed at high decibel levels. Second, he will be portrayed as a super cripple--an inspiration to all other amputees. I am sure they will trot out images of him running next to little kids with no limbs as well. I am equally sure some veterans will be exploited and patriotic music in the background. And lost in all this is the most basic aspect of Pistorius life--he is just another athlete trying to win a gold medal.

In a world that does not exist I could imagine how Pistorius could be used. He could be a tease to lead NBC into coverage of the Paralympic games. Pistorius could be a color commentator and explain the rules of adaptive sports. The viewing audience would tune in nightly to see thrilling competition. It is too bad no one will see the Paralympics. It will not be broadcast in the United States. In about six months a special will appear on NBC condensing the games into 90 minutes of inspiring trash. Worse yet, it will be broadcast once at 3:30PM, perhaps in the Fall when every American interested in sports is watching professional football. If some TV executives were smart they would push to broadcast the Paralympics. The X Games prominently feature mono skier races to a receptive and enthusiastic audience. In other words it is a rating winner.  If given a chance, I suspect the Paralympic Games could be a real ratings winner. I just wish they were given a chance.