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Terri Mauro

No First-Class Treatment on American Airlines for Passenger With Down Syndrome

By September 6, 2012

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No Heart

Seems like we've come to expect less and less of air travel in recent years. We've accepted any number of indignities, both in getting to the gate and getting to our destination. You'd think that nothing much could surprise or outrage anymore. But darned if American Airlines isn't doing its best to find new ways to look heartless and inconsiderate.

You'll recall that it was American Airlines that, a little more than a year ago, made it clear that it valued the needs of its first-class passengers for nuts freshly roasted inflight over the needs of a nut-allergic child in coach to not, you know, die of anaphylactic shock. Now it appears that American also values the needs of those front-of-plane passengers to not be bothered by the sight of a young person with a disability as they enjoy their allergenic goodies.

According to a report on USA Today, a family is accusing the airline of preventing them from boarding their Newark to Los Angeles flight -- on which they'd upgraded their seats to first class -- because their sixteen-year-old has Down syndrome. The airline claims it's because the teen was acting up at the gate, and the pilot felt he was a security risk. The parents have a video of their son behaving perfectly calmly. The airline has a statement in its defense on its Facebook page. A whole bunch of commenters ain't buying it.

I checked the American Airlines website to see if it could shed some light on the airline's policy on individuals with Down syndrome and where in the plane they're allowed to sit. The closest I could find was a page on "Cognitive and Developmental Disabilities." It mentions that the airline will help individuals with those disabilities with enplaning and deplaning, although in this case what they mostly did was keep Bede Vanderhorst from planing at all. It mentions that "Passengers who require personal or continuous attending care or who are unable to follow safety instructions from our personnel must provide a safety assistant to travel with them," which Bede had in the form of his parents. There doesn't appear to be a passage that states, "If upon our casual observation you seem rambunctious, or not 'acclimated,' or different in a way that makes us uncomfortable, you are surely not getting a seat in first-class, buddy, no matter how much money you paid us." But perhaps that's on the page for "Protecting Passengers in First Class from Any Sort of Perceived Unpleasantness."

Actually, I think Emily Willingham gets to the bottom of this situation in her post And All They Ever Seem to Do Is Stare, in pointing out that behavior that gets stares and smiles when a child with a disability is young gets stares and harsh judgment when the youngster in question is tall and heavy and adultish-looking. The jumping and flapping and grunting and finger-sucking and shirt-chewing my son does to comfort himself in stressful or boring situations hasn't changed much since he was a wee lad, but I can see someone looking at him doing that now, at age 19, taller and obviously stronger than his mom, not easily subdued by his dad, and think that he would be at the very least an unpleasant presence in a first-class cabin, and maybe a disruptive one. (When, ironically, he's way better on a plane now than he was when he was little and cute and seemed easy to take in hand. He was never easy to take in hand.)

It's interesting that this story came to my attention on the same day I brought my son to his first day at community college. Nothing makes you aware how far your kid is from typical than seeing him among hordes of his age peers -- though really, it's perhaps not so much his odd mannerisms that made his classmates raise an eyebrow at him than the fact that he wasn't embarrassed to be seen at school with his mother. I noticed his differences, but I also noticed a really encouraging number of other kids with differences, too. Even among the crowds of the first day of classes, it was easy to note all the students with physical and intellectual and developmental disabilities studying and working and hanging out together like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, of course, it is.

Whether American Airlines and its first-class clientele are comfortable with it or not, there's no denying that the days when children and teenagers and young adults with disabilities were out of sight and out of mind are over. They're traveling with their families, they're coming up through inclusion classes, they're expecting to be a part of their communities. They're going to college, they're going to the mall, they're going to restaurants, they're going to movies, they're going to be spending money somewhere. Seems like maybe businesses would want to stop freaking out about that and figure out how to gain some paying customers. (As colleges, indeed, seem to be doing.)

At any rate, if you have some thoughts on how American handled this situation, you can stop by the Facebook page and add your opinion. Chances are there will be a petition up online before long, and I'll add that in here. (UPDATE: Here's one.) You also might want to read my We Expect Respect Manifesto and take this opportunity to add your message if you haven't already.

September 7, 2012 at 12:08 pm
(1) Naomi says:

I think all of the airlines better get used to the idea that, while our kids may be pretty well-behaved, parents of kids with disabilities are loud and proud. We are sick of our kids being treated as second-class citizens. It is time for us to band together and make people we spend LOTS of money to hear us and start treating us as valued customers. All businesses would do well to note this. Now that the internet is here, this stuff spreads like wildfire. And we can make you look pretty bad.

September 7, 2012 at 12:25 pm
(2) Eileen says:

As the grandparent of two special need children, and now myself disabled, I will never fly American Airlines again. I don’t know what became of customer service, but it seems that if you have any kind of disablility, you are made to feel less than human. I hope that others who feels the same way about being more inclusive of our special needs population will also boycott this airline.

September 8, 2012 at 10:27 am
(3) Anne says:

We’ve only flown twice with our profoundly autistic son–once on Sun Country when he was 8 and once on Delta a couple weeks ago at age 11. Both times were excellent experiences with the airlines. It was clear that both airlines had done extensive training on working with families with special needs.

I didn’t click on the video, and I’m sorry to think that an airline would be that asinine. I do think flying with hard behaviors–as my son has, even if the young man with Down Syndrome did not that day–is a balancing act of needs, because of course the airline needs to keep everyone safe, too.

September 8, 2012 at 10:28 am
(4) Anne says:

(pt 2) I think it’s important for parents to take all front measures when flying rather than just showing up at the gate and then being surprised when things don’t go swimmingly. In our case, we called Delta’s Disability Services in advance, explained that our son would likely have a rough time on the trip, that he might shriek and vocalize throughout the trip, that we would, of course, do everything we could to keep him quiet and comfortable and minimize disruption to other passengers. They offered us very back-row seating, not as an insult to us–it was a true offer–and we were glad to sit there so we could focus on our son’s needs and not worry about him thrashing around and, yes, frightening other people.

We visited the airport the week before our flight. He screamed bloody murder, and absolutely every single person in that airport turned to stare…but you know what? The following week, when it was the real deal, he had been there before and was quite calm walking in.

We packed favorite DVDs, snacks, his iPad, books and did our darnedest to keep him happy…for our sake AND for the sake of others. We don’t medicate, but that day we gave him a Benadryl and a melatonin, and it seemed to help.

September 8, 2012 at 10:29 am
(5) Anne says:

We also brought along chocolate bars, both for the flight crew and for the passengers sitting around us, explaining that our son is autistic, that he’s having a rough time and thank you for your understanding. I’m happy to say we brought all the chocolate bars home with us–he did better than we ever could have expected–but if we were to fly again next week, I’d do the same thing. It’s the difference between yelling, “MY KID HAS RIGHTS, DAMMIT!” (which he does, of course) vs. saying, “Hey, I know this is a rough situation for everyone, not just my son, and I want everyone to know I’m grateful for your understanding.”

In short, I think parents bear much responsibility, too. I love the symphony, but I wouldn’t insist my loud, disruptive son has a right to attend the symphony. I wouldn’t insist on him sitting in first class, either.

September 12, 2012 at 2:27 pm
(6) Christine says:

My 5 yr old son with Down syndrome travels everywhere we go to include trains, planes and automobiles. I have never had to call ahead to alert the airlines I was bringing on a child with “special needs”. I am disappointed to think anyone needs to call ahead if their child behaved on all the other times he has flown. My child is better behaved than most children and it appeared that this 16 yr old was as well. I would rather sit next to a 16 yr old with Down syndrome than a Typical 2 yr old that cries the whole flight or the couple making out behind me. I wonder if the person who gets drunk and obnoxious on the flight warns the crew the next time he flies?
I am sure that American Airlines had 3 other passengers ready to take those seats because they would not have let them go for free and they looked for who they could bully and put on a different flight. If he was that much of a “risk” to others, he should not have been allowed to fly at all so they went against their statement of safety for the other passengers. If they were really in fear, he either should not have been allowed to fly or given the first row so he could be the last one on the plane and the first one off, but that is too close to first class for their comfort.

September 12, 2012 at 3:37 pm
(7) Lindsey Doroba says:

Wow! No wonder the airlines are losing so much business these days. This family has the right to sue! People learn in elementary school to treat others as they want to be treated and obviously some people didn’t learn that information. No matter what the case is there is no reason anyone should be embarrassed or affected by a businesses ignorance.

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