Search This Blog

Friday, September 7, 2012

American Airlines Attempts to Explain its Actions

American Airlines has provided a somewhat more detailed response as to why they barred a 16 year old boy with Down Syndrome and his family from flying. This explanation was posted on the Americans Airline Facebook page which was bombarded with expressions of outrage. 
Here is the statement in full:
We appreciate the outpouring of concern for the Vanderhorst family. However, prior to boarding flight 119 from Newark to Los Angeles, our customer service team observed the Vanderhorst teen yelling and running around the gate area – he seemed very agitated. Our team, along with the Captain of the flight, worked with the family for more than 30 minutes to try and calm the teen down. There were times when he was calm, but unfortunately, when it came time to board the flight he became agitated again. We tried to work with the family to come up with alternate solutions, which included an offer to rebook the family on the next flight in order to give the teen time to acclimate to his surroundings. Our customer service team, as well as flight crew, made the difficult decision that it wasn't best for the teen to travel at that time. We wanted to make sure that the young man, as well as the other passengers onboard, were safe and comfortable during the six-hour flight.Ultimately, the family chose to fly another airline, and we helped to re-accommodate the Vanderhorsts. American's actions and procedures are in full compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. Asking the Vanderhorst family to take a different flight was a decision that was made with careful consideration and was based solely on the young man's behavior.
I remain convinced American Airlines is lying. The easiest way to settle this would be to release security tapes of Bede Vanderhorst "yelling and running around the gate area". Such behavior would have been grossly inappropriate. In fact if any person yelled and ran around a gate area at an airport in America the police would be called within seconds. Airports demand utter control of the masses that pass through them. This control is required and insured by a number of humiliation rituals foremost among them passing through security. Any behavior out of the norm is quickly and forcefully dealt with. All people, from a seasoned traveler to a person that flies once a decade, know you cannot behave inappropriately. People simply must conform. In my case that entails a long wait at security and being referred to TSA guards as "adult male wheelchair". 
I sincerely doubt the the captain of the flight "worked with the family for more than 30 minutes to try and calm the teen down". I have never seen a pilot "work" with a passenger for more than a minute or two in my entire life. Calming down passengers is not the responsibility of a pilot. Again, has any reader ever seen a passenger behave out of the norm--especially since 9/11? This does not happen and if it does airport security will rapidly respond. In New York I often hear the commercial "If you see something say something". Of course "something" is not defined but is understood to include all unusual behavior. So if a teen, especially one with Down Syndrome, was "yelling and running" as American Airlines maintains I am sure dozens of people in the boarding area would have called airport security. 
The statement that the "family chose to fly on another airline" and that American Airlines "helped re-accommodate" the family is grossly misleading. The reality behind this statement is as follows: the family was humiliated and deeply stigmatized. They could not board a plane even though they had first class tickets. They had to stay in a hotel, likely next to the airport, and spent a sleepless night worrying if they would be barred from a flight the next day. I assume they decided to fly coach as they had in the past without incident. God forbid a teen with Down Syndrome who has what Erving Goffman called a "spoiled identity" be near other first class passengers.
Obviously this story has hit a sore spot. I deeply resent the way people with a disability are treated at airports and by airlines. I have exceedingly low expectations when I fly. I assume I will receive the lowest level of customer service humanly possible. I assume I will be needlessly delayed. I assume I will be disrespected. I assume multiple FAA violations will occur when I board a plane. In the New York area, I assume the trained personnel responsible for assisting me on and off a plane will not speak English and have no clue what they are doing. I expect all this. I can defend myself and have learned how to adapt to a hostile environment. But what truly enrages me is when people with cognitive deficits are  treated as badly as I am. Who will defend them? Who will serve as a surrogate to protect them from gross injustice? Who will express outrage when they are barred from boarding a plane? I truly appreciate the support the family has received after the fact but wonder where this outrage was when they were refused boarding. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

American Airlines: Bigotry Abounds Yet Again

There are dozens of stories in the mainstream media about a 16 year old boy with Down Syndrome and his parents who were not allowed to board an aircraft at Newark airport. The family in question were not novice fliers. They had flown together many times without incident.  The family is also very angry--anger I can understand as I know all too well how the airline industry knowingly discriminates against people with a disability.  As is usually the case, the airline, in this instance American Airlines, is defending itself and the pilot who decided a 16 boy with Down Syndrome was a flight safety risk. According to American airlines, the boy was agitated and running around the gate area before boarding. This behavior worried the pilot who asked a customer service manager to talk to the family to see if the boy could be calmed down. According to the airline spokesman Matt Miller "that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and we made the decision to have the family rebooked on a different flight out of concern for the young man's safety and the safety of others". Prior to boarding customer service approached the family twice to explain the pilot was concerned the boy could create a disturbance. There was concern about the boy's size--he is 5'1" and 160--and his seat's proximity to the cockpit. The decision to refuse boarding was not made lightly and based on the boy's behavior according to the airline.

I have two words for the above rationalization: bull shit. According to the family their son, Bede, walked around the terminal before the flight. Lots of people do this. Sometimes their son hums or talks to himself and does so in a quiet voice. According to the family at no point was Bede excitable, he did not run around, nor did he misbehave. So where did things go wrong? The family had the audacity to upgrade their seats to first class. This was a long flight--a cross country flight from the New York area to California. People in first class spend big bucks for their big seats. Much profit is located in first class and the corporate connections are deemed valuable by the airlines.  This is the real issue: people with Down Syndrome are not expected to sit in first class. People who use a wheelchair are not expected to sit in first class. The same can be said for any person with a visible disability. First class seats require first class service. First class service is not what disabled people get. We people with a disability get treated like shit by airlines. Yes, I know the airlines are rude to one and all but special disdain is held for people such as myself who cannot walk or those with a cognitive deficit. We represent work to airline personnel and are out of the norm. Given this, we have the symbolic equivalent of the plague. 

How did the family get home? They were rebooked in economy class on United Airlines the next day. Their seats were in the very last row. All seats and the row in front of them were empty. This was a far from subtle fuck you. 

Lets look at the facts:

The family has flown together approximately 30 times in couch without incident.
The pilot observed behavior he deemed a risk.
The mother was told she cannot video the incident via her phone as she is located in a secure area. 
The only thing different was the family upgraded to first class.

The father stated "We went from first class to last class. From the front of the bus to the back, and the only thing I can conclude is that the airlines do not want people like my son to sit in first class". As one who has flown a good bit that is a reasonable line of thought. I find it hard to fathom how a boy, regardless of his size, represented a threat to the pilots or  flight safety in general. If we accept this sort of thinking espoused by the airline industry no large well muscled male would be allowed to sit in first class. Rather than mindlessly accepting what he was being told the father questioned ground personnel. He repeatedly asked "Is this only because he has Down Syndrome". If I have learned anything in the post 9/11 world, a world where one gives up all civil rights the second you enter an airline terminal, it is not to question authority. When one does this all bets are off. Any behavior or dress that out of the norm opens one to risk--risk meaning you might be detained against your will or be barred from getting on an air plane for a host of dubious reasons. 

I do not expect much to happen. I am sure the story will blow over in a few days. The airlines have consistently been fined by the Department of Justice for violating the rights of passengers with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users such as myself. I suspect the fines levied are lumped into the cost of doing business. I really hold out no hope the airlines will ever change. Institutional bias is very difficult to eradicate. And more to the point, no other passengers are willing to help--ever. This is the down side to the fear mongering Republicans who have waged a never ending war on terrorism. Fear sells and too many Americans have bought into such tactics.  Yikes, what a gloomy conclusion. 

An Untapped Resource

The above video was made and uploaded to You Tube by Elizabeth Acquino. Elizabeth maintains a blog "A moon, worn as if it had been a shell". See

I do not usually like emotional videos when it pertains to disability. Inevitably such videos rely on antiquated stereotypes such as pity or inspiration. In my estimation the above video highlights the fact raising a child with a disability is needlessly difficult. While my son is typical and I have not raised a child with a disability I do know what it is like to grow up with a disability. Between the ages of 9 and 19 I went through the medical mill. I suffered greatly as modern medical care back in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s was primitive at best. Aside from great pain which I vividly recall, I remember my parents firm advocacy for me. They battled doctors, hospital administrators, school teachers, principals,  social workers, etc. They battled for one reason--to protect my rights as a human being. Many times I saw the fury in my parents eyes when some inane rule meant to dehumanize was enforced. At a very young age they taught me to assert my rights--the most valuable lesson they ever taught me.  The point I am striving to get at is to a small degree I get what it is like to raise a child with a disability. I understand this dynamic from the side of a child not a parent. The lessons taught by parents are critically important.  Indeed, most people I know with a disability that have carved out a career and independent life for themselves all had strong familial support. Exceptions exist of course. 

It has long been my belief that parents who fiercely support their children that have a disability are a great untapped resource in disability rights.  Parents enter the crucible of multiple hostile environments--schools and hospitals in particular and protect the rights of their children. The parents I know who have kids with a disability, especially those with significant cognitive and physical disabilities, are skilled at manipulating obstinate administrators and getting the services their child needs and is legally obligated to receive. This is no small accomplishment. Where parents and disability rights advocates fail is in advocating jointly. Parents too often are bought off by schools--we will give your child all you request provided you do not agitate further. And who can blame such parents for taking such a deal? I simply do not know how to get these two groups together. Schools certainly do not invite disability rights activists to their schools nor do hospitals or nursing homes.  What children are taught about disability is antiquated in the extreme--if they learn anything at all. Disability rights is not even a tiny slice of the curriculum. It is utterly absent when my son was a school boy--it is still absent at the university level in spite of the fact he is going to a school that has a significant commitment to disability scholarship.  This is the fundamental problem--the complete lack of awareness that disability rights is a civil rights issue. When I write this I feel like a broken record--one that no one is listening to.  This lesson must be taught at a young age--this makes me realize just how lucky I was as I often say I hit the "parent lottery".  I would love to hear from readers about how to get parents of children to embrace the work and advocacy of ADAPT or Not Dead Yet for instance.