D’Arcee Neal is a 29-year old man with cerebral palsy. Returning from a meeting about disability accessibility policy in San Francisco on a United flight last week, flight attendants watched Neal crawl out of his seat and down the aisle to the gangway when he was unable to get a wheelchair due to a mix-up at the gate in D.C.

Neal was forced to crawl because of a policy that dictates that passengers with disabilities must wait for all other passengers to disembark. Neal, whose disability prevented him from using the airplane lavatory, waited more than 30 minutes. He left his seat after repeatedly notifying flight attendants that he needed to use the restroom. 

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It would be reassuring to say that this kind of unfair treatment of people with disabilities is vanishingly rare – but it is not.  And for five decades now, policymakers and movement activists have been fighting to make public transit accessible. 

Accessible transportation was an issue that used to generate bipartisan support in Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike got behind Republican Sen. Bob Dole’s 1986 Air Carriers Access Act. It stipulated that no air carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle believed that sympathy and compassion would not be enough in improving the lives of people with disabilities. Real policy change was needed. 

But conservative judicial rulings have taken the bite out of these laws. The Air Carriers Access Act was Congress’ response to the case of Paralyzed Veterans of America v. the Department of Transportation, in which the Supreme Court ruled that disability antidiscrimination legislation did not apply to U.S. commercial air carriers. The result was that the airline industry was largely removed from coverage.  

Even after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act – seen as a clear reaffirmation of Congress’ intent to strengthen disability rights – the Court continued to undermine the law. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled on a case directly involving United Airlines – this time, on the grounds of disability employment discrimination. The Sutton sisters had severe myopia and were denied employment by the airline because they did not meet United’s minimum vision requirements. The Court, in what many saw as a perverse interpretation of the law, ruled that the Sutton sisters were actually not “disabled enough” to qualify under the ADA because they could easily correct their vision problem. The sisters were “too disabled” for United, and not “disabled enough” for the Courts.

These policy problems must be fixed. If the courts will not fix them, federal lawmakers should – and in the meantime, the airlines should take action on their own. 

Ironically, this month’s Hemispheres – United’s in flight magazine – featured a story titled “No Thanks Necessary.” It’s a story about a caring United customer care disability specialist who called a customer at home after the customer experienced problems related to the use of a wheelchair on a United flight.  

While these acts of kindness are surely appreciated, they do not replace the need for systematic policy implementation to ensure that people with disabilities do not have to rely on individual acts of compassion. 

Pettinicchio is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.