Monday, May 11, 2015

"She might scratch somebody":

Here's what's making headlines in the disability world this week. A family from Oregon traveling from Disney World was kicked off their flight home after their autistic child was deemed 'disruptive'. If that was all to this story I'd be joining the ranks of the outraged and speaking out against the airline as this would be just another of those stories were the personnel doesn't react appropriately to a customer with special needs. After reading more, I must say I'm on the fence about this one as I don't think the parents handled the situation well.  As their daughter, described in the papers as having highly functioning autism became agitated during the flight, the family believed that getting her some food would calm her down. But she refused to eat anything  that the flight attendants offered to the passengers in their class, as well as things they brought on the plane with them. They then decided that getting her a hot meal would help, so they asked for a first class meal and even offered to pay for it. That however wasn't an option. Here's where things take a turn for the worse: they then told the flight attendant that they fear she might "scratch someone" if she doesn't get it. The meal was provided to her, but the captain decided to land the plane in Salt Lake City. The parents filled a complaint and are contemplating a law suit against United  Airlines. When other passengers asked if they felt threatened as the family was escorted off they said no. Here's what I think: This could have been another one of those stories where the flight attendants don't know what to do or just don't have the patience to deal with a special needs passenger. The mother wants them to get special training as a result of this and quite honestly a little more empathy and understanding never hurt anyone. Disruptive or not, the family needs to get home somehow.

 But, by the same token, the mother surely must recognize that as soon as she uttered the words "she might cut someone" it raised a couple of red flags and put the staff on high alert. Surely, she could have communicated her daughter's needs without suggesting she's about get violent towards other people on the plane. Many outlets covering this story completely ignored the mothers quote making it only about the airline insensitivity yet again. But to me it's the key to understanding the situation.   There are certain words you don't use when you're miles up in the air in a crowded tin can, she may have just as well said  that there's a bomb, or that they will stub somebody with a butterknife- and watch what the reaction would be. I understand that she was frustrated. And that she wanted to present a certain sense of urgency to the flight attendant, maybe she was even using a figure of speech, but never, ever is it okay to say that your child is dangerous to those around it. Yes, it's quite probable that a fifteen year couldn't do that much harm anyway. But I understand why a captain wouldn't want to take that risk. He's responsible for the lives and well-being of everyone on the plane and that sometimes involves making a tough call  with little time and even less information. He can't possibly know how this might unfold.  And after the Germanwings pilot willfully crashed his plane killing everyone on board, air travel became more stressful virtually overnight. The child was disruptive because she didn't know any better, but the mother should. Yes, I know- in a highly stressful situation our emotions often get the best of us. But here's a rule of thumb- if you have a child with disability, especially if it's a condition that is not obvious or plainly visible- tell the agent at the gate and the flight attendant. That way they know what to expect and also will do what they can to make the trip more pleasant. I'm in a wheelchair, so my condition is fairly obvious. On many occasions I've been approached by the airline personnel to either switch me out to the isle sit, somewhere close to the bathroom or even bump me up to the first class. They always make sure to explain the boarding process to me and go out of their way to ask me if I don't need  anything like use the restroom. In contrast they're not as responsive when I travel with other people because the assumption is "they got it covered". Bottom line: I wonder how much the mother communicated to the staff before the flight about her daughter peculiar needs. I think, had they been warned beforehand they may have had  reacted better even as they heard that the girl might scratch people if she doesn't get her way. A disability is not a shameful secret, don't be afraid to talk about it.

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