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The Vanderhorst Experience, The Airline Industry Needs an Education

  • Published: 2012-09-07 (Revised/Updated 2013-06-06) : Author: Wendy Taormina-Weiss
  • Synopsis: The Vanderhorst family recently experienced one of the worst and most blatant cases of airline discrimination against disability.

Quote: "The Vanderhorst family decided they had enough of American Airlines, booked a flight on United Airlines, and were then placed in a segregated area in coach class in the very back of the airplane - how's that for discrimination among the airline industry as a whole"

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America has the laws to protect People with Disabilities, or does it? One might think a person who experiences a form of disability in this nation that prides itself on being a leader in the area of disability rights around the world would be devoid of discrimination at least in relation to major industries such as the airline industry, but this is apparently not the case. The Vanderhorst family recently experienced one of the worst and most blatant cases of discrimination this writer has read about in some time.

The Vanderhorst family upgraded their tickets for a flight from Newark to Los Angeles to first class while traveling with their son Bede, who is 16 years old and a freshman in High School. Bede is a person with Down syndrome. Why should their son's form of disability make any difference in the world where flying on a plane is concerned? The Vanderhorst family didn't even think it would be an issue, they arranged the tickets so one of them could sit next to their son.

When they headed for the gate to board the plane, airline personnel told the Vanderhorst's that Bede's behavior was creating a, 'security risk,' and they were not allowed to get on the plane. American Airlines stated:

"The young man was agitated and running around the gate area prior to boarding flight 119 from Newark to Los Angeles on Sunday evening. Our pilot noticed and asked a Customer Service Manager to talk to the family to see if we could help him calm down and get better acclimated to the situation. That effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and we made the decision to have the family re-booked on a different flight out of concern for the young man's safety and the safety of others. The family chose not to fly American, so we helped re-accommodate them on another carrier's flight to Los Angeles."

Assume for a moment that the statement by American Airlines is correct, and that Bede at age 16 was running around the gate area before his flight. What possible, 'security risk,' does his being excited about flying present? From this writer's perspective, it is very clearly a matter of the prejudice of the employees of American Airlines at work. Robert, Bede's father, says American Airlines personnel didn't even speak to him or Bede's mother.

Robert stated, "No employee ever talked to us or interacted with Bede." Oops, it appears American Airlines personnel may be lying. As the situation unfolded, Bede himself could see that his mother was upset and became worried, just as any other child would when their parent is upset. The Vanderhorst family decided they had enough of American Airlines, booked a flight on United Airlines, and were then placed in a segregated area in coach class in the very back of the airplane - how's that for discrimination among the airline industry as a whole? Robert said, "They put us in the very back seat and kept two or three rows in front of us, a back of the bus, and then we were treated this way."

The Vanderhorst's intend to pursue legal action, and it is entirely appropriate. Their goal is to ensure that people are treated fairly when they fly. Robert stated, "I want American Airlines, United, and all the airlines to train their pilots and staff to treat people with respect." The Americans with Disabilities Act has been law for more than two decades, and efforts towards disability awareness in this nation have been ongoing for far longer. Best Buddies International Founder and Chairman Anthony Shriver has sent a letter to American Airlines CEO Tom Horton requesting that action be taken. Senator Michael Rubio has also demanded that American Airlines provide a public apology, sensitivity training, as well as full compensation to the Vanderhorst family.

Yet what about United Airlines, which placed Bede and his family at the back of the plane with several rows of empty seats in front of them, as if they were somehow contagious or something? What about the perspectives of United Airlines? It seems that another airline is getting off of the discrimination hook in the process.

With nothing but respect for the actions taken by Senator Rubio and Best Buddies, it seems the actions taken must be Airline Industry wide. Every airline needs to provide sensitivity training. Every airline needs to provide its personnel with disability awareness training, not just American Airlines or United Airlines.

The actions and demeanors of American Airlines and United Airlines are so gothic and prejudicial and so representative of everything America is not about it demands immediate action on the part of the airline industry as a whole. People with Disabilities are a major minority population in America, one that simply cannot be treated with this level of disrespect and utter disregard by a major industry. The more this writer looks at the airline industry in America, the more prejudicial it appears.


Family Denied Flight Due to Disability

The Robert Vanderhorst family say they will take legal action against American Airlines for refusing to allow them to fly due to what they claim is discrimination against their son Bede, who has Down Syndrome.

Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement - Passengers with Disabilities

"The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. Airlines may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability."

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