*This article was originally published in early May 2015, though the topic of disability and public discourse about how we encounter it, and cope with it, is timeless.
This past week a United Airlines flight en route to Portland, Oregon made an emergency landing in Salt Lake City, Utah, to remove a family whose autistic daughter was deemed too “disruptive.” Readers, I’ve tried to look at this topic from a variety of angles, but frankly, the whole thing leaves me beyond irritated.
According to The Washington Post, during a flight to Portland, Juliette Beegle became agitated and began making repetitive noises (you can hear an example on this video at the 1:00 mark). Knowing her daughter’s behavior patterns, Donna Beegle, Juliette’s mother, knew she needed to provide her warm food to soothe her and to prevent her stressed behavior from escalating. After several requests to purchase food from First Class were turned down (the family of four was sitting in Economy/Coach), the in-flight staff finally allowed it and Juliette calmed down. After about an hour, the captain announced that the flight would be making an emergency landing due to a passenger with behavioral issues. Once they landed, the Beegles were escorted off.
We as a society talk about children with disabilities, impairments, and severe illnesses with this sense of “otherness,” as though they’re some species of human that should be spoken about in hushed terms, the reality of their behaviors something to be overlooked or spoken about behind closed doors as if it’s shameful. It’s not.
I know adults and children with developmental disabilities, with chronic illnesses that leave them mentally impaired, and yes, sometimes with varying degrees of autism. In fact, I’m related to someone in the first category. And you know what? Sometimes these individuals get overwhelmed, and they have a meltdown, just like what happened on this flight. Just like with any kid (and some pretty average adults, even).
And those meltdowns suck.
For them, for their parents, and for others. It’s noisy, it’s upsetting, and it’s sometimes entirely disruptive. And just like with any kid over the edge, you deal with it and don’t make a bigger deal of it – it just feeds the escalation. Seriously. What happened in Salt Lake was a gross overreaction to something that should have been better handled by all sides of this story.
What makes this scenario awful from a disability advocacy perspective is the airline’s response. I can’t imagine that an airline would emergency land a plane because a neurotypical child was making repeated noises…or as is more common with kids on planes, screaming or crying something inappropriate over and over.
So when I logged on to YouTube to watch the cell phone video of the incident, I expected to see a family being physically removed with a child yelling or whooping or something else characteristic of an autistic teen on sensory overload. Instead, I found a girl calmly walking out into the plane’s aisle, behind her family. Really?!? The whole incident smacks of disability-related discrimination, and that is something that needs to be dealt with via a formal complaint to the airline. That complaint is now apparently underway. Thank goodness. With complaints often come policy changes, and sensitivity training, which I think is essential in this case for that crew.
Reports allude to United Airlines claiming the mother’s insistence that she purchase a warm meal (available only to First Class passengers) was forced the cabin crew to break flight protocol. To a certain extent, I can see their argument here. Juliette didn’t “look autistic” (nor does anyone autistic, hello), and it was a First-Class privilege to be delegated out at the discretion of the attendants.
Also, if you’re a parent and a regular flyer, and you know that your child (autistic or not) will likely have a meltdown from either exhaustion or hunger, you’re responsible for making sure you’ve set up precautions to handle scenarios. A lack of planning on your part does not constitute the same type of emergency on the part of United Airlines. With that said, there’s very little judgment from me to Juliette’s parents, because that entire experience must have been awful for them, but I do think what they chose to do (or not do) was entirely unworkable.
To avoid situations like this my family always notifies the airlines ahead of time that we will be flying with a child with special needs. It’s unclear to me if the Beegle family did this. Notifying the airline ahead of time makes the cabin crew fully aware that they have an individual on board who may not react or behave as everyone else, though they look no different. United Airlines requests as much in their extensive disability policy outline, and indicates it’s best to provide at least 24 hour advanced notice:
“Every person with a disability is different, and you are the best judge of the service you require. If we’re doing more or less than you need, please communicate your preferred level of assistance to our employees … we do not require information concerning the extent of a disability, however, the more information we have about you, the better prepared we are to meet your needs.”
Typically, on most airlines, boarding passes are then coded appropriately and those extra attentions and accommodations (like a warm meal exception) can be made efficiently and without time for behavior to escalate. Again, I don’t know if the Beegles did this or not, but if this wasn’t done, it may have been a large part of the problem. I have flown United Airlines, and they’ve never made these disability exceptions an issue, so maybe the family wasn’t aware that this was an option.
With all that being said, does the punishment fit the crime?
Diverting the plane over a girl making moderate but controlled noises for a short time is not the same thing as grounding it over a belligerent passenger, or three passengers simultaneously passing out or an outright brawl between passengers. The rigidity of policy that the crew of that particular flight chose to execute, for so many reasons, is both policy ridiculous and socially inept at best. Once you know you have an agitated special needs passenger (or any passenger who is agitated) you would think that you would do your best to calm them without getting into a rigid standoff over the rules. In fact, United Airlines’ disability policy states:
“in addition to requesting special assistance when making your reservation, please let our airport employees and in-flight crew members know of your special needs during your travel. Friendly reminders to our employees are always appreciated and will help us place a face with a request for assistance.”
For a breach of protocol, it was a small one to make to calm a passenger who was clearly upset, even more so for one who needed appropriate accommodations.
Abby Phillip. Oregon Mom Says Fear Of Her Autistic Daughter Caused United To Divert Flight. The Washington Post.
Jennifer Dowling. ‘She Wasn’t Put Off The Plane Because of Autism.’ KOIN.com.
Cell Phone Video of Incident – Youtube.
Christina Dugan. Oregon Mom Says Autistic Daughter’s Removal from United Airlines Flight Was ‘Rooted in Ignorance’. People Magazine.
United Airlines Disability Policy. United Airlines.