I was witness to an increasingly unfortunate situation as I commuted home the other day – one that hits closer to home than most people may realize.
As I waited in the gate area of my flight home, the gate agent made the announcement that boarding would begin shortly, as soon as the less able passengers who were ticketed on this flight were accommodated onboard and situated. On this particular flight, there were nine wheelchairs waiting for boarding, one that was an electric wheelchair, which clearly meant that a little more time would be necessary to board this individual using the airline's aisle chair on the plane.
While waiting in the boarding area, and quietly listening in on various conversations going on around me, I overheard a couple near me vocally protesting the extra accommodation by the airline and they were clearly upset that the extra time needed would cause them to arrive late to catch a connecting flight down the line. As they continued, a few people within earshot chimed in as well, all offering their own opinions about how the disabled and physically challenged passengers should be handled, one even going so far as to suggest that they should be restricted to certain aircraft types or even find themselves another method of travel. I was silently shocked at this conversation and began to wonder if these people were just unsympathetic idiots, or if this opinion was beginning to find traction among airline passengers in general.
Clearly, most of us are tolerant of the special needs of those less fortunate in physical abilities – in virtually every aspect of our daily interactions. We gladly make way for them, and are glad to be of service when they ask. While there are some cultural anomalies in this world that look down upon the disabled and handicapped, in the United States we seem to have evolved far enough to warrant added patience and we find ourselves wanting to help those who require a bit more human touch than most. But as I observed here, there was definitely a different feeling brewing in this gate area.
In 1986, the United States Congress passed the "Air Carrier Access Act" which spelled out specific requirements the airlines must follow regarding the handling of disabled passengers, which in many ways mirrors the "Americans with Disabilities Act" to protect these passengers from blatant negligence or unintentional neglect from the airline carriers. Over the years, there have been many changes to this law, many of which went into effect in May 2009. You can find a complete list of these changes, along with the requirements for special accommodation by the airlines at the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Civil Rights" page regarding passengers with disabilities.
A recent survey by the Scope Foundation, a charity that supports disabled people and their families, revealed that over 47% of disabled people faced some sort of discrimination while traveling. Of that number, 15% claimed they faced "high-level" abuse. And the Commission on Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), who later this fall, will be publishing a report on violence towards those with disabilities while traveling, says that travel is one of the "hot spots for violence and harassment targeted at disabled people.”
The airlines have had their share of mishaps regarding physically and mentally challenged travelers, and have paid huge penalties for not being proactive enough. In Feb. 2011, Delta Airlines was slapped with a $2 million fine by the DOT for violating 14CFR, especially after it had been investigated four years earlier for similar violations and no improvements had been determined. The DOT also fined Atlantic Southeast Airlines $200,000 in June 2011 for similar violations.
Thankfully, with the assistance of watchdog groups such as Scope and CEHR, airlines have been forced to devote some of their resources to make sure this sector of the public is not only seen, but also treated with respect and dignity when they travel. As much as it excites me that progress has been made in this area, it’s frustrating to see the backlash (especially first hand) from the public at large when it comes to the handicapped.
With more people flying than ever before, and airlines facing huge push-back from travelers who feel they are being gouged with additional fees, but seemingly very little improvement in the airline travel experience, it's not surprising that people in general have begun to transfer their frustrations on any small thing that causes them even a minute's worth of delay. The problem seems to be growing, but is there a solution? Can we, as a society, condone a growing outrage towards those who have additional physical and mental challenges who need the additional time and resources of airline personnel to travel?
I said at the beginning of this topic that this hits close to home for me. My sister has been a paraplegic since she was three years old. Today, at 26, she is happily married with three children, and is quite able to get around (especially with three kids!). While she was growing up, she would crawl around on the floor using her arms to propel her from place to place. She may have been physically disabled, but she never quite seemed physically limited.
Hearing these people in the boarding area of my flight publicly voicing these kinds of ignorant remarks makes my blood boil, but traveling in an airline uniform limits my ability to speak my mind. Believe me; had I been an ordinary passenger in that boarding area, they would not have gotten off so easily!
Most customer service oriented positions, especially in the airline industry, require training in sensitivity and the proper protocol for dealing with passengers with disabilities. While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it tends to improve the quality of service that the disabled need just to get from one place to another. Even if I weren’t in the position I hold, I would still never think to discriminate, especially against those less physically or mentally able than I. I don’t park in handicapped spaces in parking lots, and I go out of my way to open doors, or assist when I see someone struggling, handicapped or not.
It’s pretty sad to think that the public in general is increasingly less tolerant and I hope that by shedding light on this subject, that trend may be reversed.
 U.S. Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement, Rules Guidance & Enforcement Orders, 14CFR Part 382 “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel,” http://1.usa.gov/q5UwLf
 U.S. Department of Transportation, Releases and Speeches, “Atlantic Southeast Airlines Fined for Violating Rules Protecting Air Travelers with Disabilities,” July 11, 2011, http://1.usa.gov/rk114G