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.