Airline industry’s miserable record with disabled travelers

“This line is for travelers who need special assistance.” The airport staffer steps impassively in front of my husband, who is laden with two backpacks, a rolling suitcase, and our seven-year-old son Henry, who has Down syndrome.  Five minutes ago, Henry was overwhelmed by the security line and bolted into the crowd, sending us dashing after.  I’m recovering from surgery and can’t lift anything heavy so my husband has to run while carrying bags for our family of four.  Seeing our predicament, another security staff had kindly ushered us through a corridor leading directly to the special assistance line.  That’s where we confront her colleague, who informs us stonily that her checkpoint is for people with wheelchairs or strollers only.

It’s easy to make the woman guarding the special assistance line the villain in our airport drama.  But the real problem is that accommodation for disabled travelers should not be left to the discretion of individual personnel.  It should be mandatory training for all and it should go beyond the minimum requirements laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, which are geared primarily toward access for people with mobility and sensory impairments.  Current legislation offers little guidance for accommodating people whose disabilities are not immediately visible, particularly if they don’t hinder movement through the airport.

{mosads}The nightmares of air travel for people with mobility impairments are well documented.  Wheelchair users regularly arrive at their destination to find their chairs damaged or lost.  Many disabled travelers report feeling unsafe when being transferred from their chairs to airline seats.  They encounter harassment during security screenings, endure long waits to move through the airport or get off the plane, and go without food and drink to avoid having to navigate inaccessible bathrooms.  Last winter, D’Arcee Neal, a man with cerebral palsy, had to crawl off his United Airlines flight when no attendant showed up to bring him a wheelchair and he needed to use the bathroom.

Neal’s experience was an obvious violation of the law, not to mention his dignity.  The problems are compounded by air travelers with less visible disabilities.  E. Amato, a freelance writer who has limited use of her legs, describes the searing pain she experienced when she had to stand in long lines for food and bathrooms after being left by the attendant who navigated her through security.  Her suffering is no less real because it is not immediately apparent to other travelers.

The air travel industry gets its worst marks for treatment of travelers with intellectual disabilities.  When a colleague was flying alone with her autistic son and three-year-old daughter who has brain damage and developmental delays, United Airlines refused her request to pre-board and denied her access to the line for passengers with disabilities.  Because the girl was small enough to be carried, her disabilities were masked, making it easy for gate personnel to deny her mother’s request for accommodations.

Sometimes the mere presence of travelers with intellectual disabilities is enough to arouse suspicion and prejudice.  Bede Vanderhorst, a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome whose parents decided to splurge on first class tickets, was denied boarding after a pilot decided his behavior might be disruptive.  Another pilot made an emergency landing after a woman asked for a hot meal for her autistic daughter, explaining that she might have “behavior issues” if she went without eating.  In these cases, the ignorance and poor judgment of individual pilots is compounded by a lack of training about travelers with intellectual and neurological disabilities.

Admittedly, air travel today is often uncomfortable, inconvenient, and degrading for almost everyone except the very rich.  But for travelers with disabilities the problems go beyond discomfort and inconvenience to compromising their legal rights and personal safety.  For those with mobility impairments and sensory disabilities like blindness and deafness, the requirements for accommodation laid out in the Air Carrier Access Act are clearly being violated.  For travelers with intellectual disabilities, the issues are murkier.  We didn’t ask for special accommodations, but our difficulties could have been mitigated by airport personnel trained to understand that “special assistance” should not be limited to travelers with wheelchairs or strollers.

It is in everybody’s interest that the airline industry get its act together.  Nobody wants their child, elderly parent, or loved one to be humiliated, abandoned or injured while traveling.  And those of us who are currently able-bodied will likely one day become disabled as a result of sickness, accident, or age and we will want to be treated with care and respect.  Not to mention that mistreatment of disabled travelers is likely to cause delay and inconvenience for all passengers. 

We are entering “shoulder season,” the period between the winter holidays and summer season when experts advise travelers to take advantage of good weather, smaller crowds, and better fares.   But “shoulder” also means to take responsibility.  It is time for the air travel industry to own up to its miserable record at accommodating travelers with disabilities.  At the bare minimum, this means insisting that all personnel comply with the law.  But it should also go beyond the basic legal requirements by educating pilots, flight attendants, and airport staff about travelers with less visible disabilities, who that may or may not need special accommodation.  It should do so for the sake of common decency, but also because it will improve the efficiency, comfort, and safety of travel for all passengers.

Adams is a professor who teaches disability studies at Columbia University, and a Public Voices fellow. 


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