By Jo Ann Simons, Ruderman Family Foundation Disabilities Advisor and CEO Cardinal Cushing Centers
In case you missed the recent troubling account of the removal of Bede Vanderhost from an American Airlines flight, the airline will certainly hold to their version of the story that this teenager with Down syndrome, in spite have having regularly flown on dozens of flights, was deemed “not ready to fly.” His family, advocates for persons with disability and I see it as another example of the need to change public attitudes towards people with disabilities.
It brought me back to an event that I happened to me and frankly to an era that I had naively thought was over. Almost 30 years ago, I was seated at the very front of coach on a flight back from Florida with my 4-year-old son with Down syndrome and infant daughter, waiting for the cabin doors to close. Jon had dozed off. One row behind us and to our left, a loud family had taken their seats. They were creating quite a commotion and scene because they suddenly decided they wanted to get off the flight. In the midst of the chaos they were creating, someone asked the flight attendant what was causing the delay. Right there in front of me, she said, “There is a family with a child with Down syndrome and he is upset.”
I was incredulous. I interrupted her to say that I was the one with the child with Down syndrome and the family that was creating the unsafe situation was behind me. I don’t think I got an apology but, what I got was a lesson in prejudice and intolerance.
Just the mere sight of a person with Down syndrome triggered an assumption in that flight attendant 30 years ago and in the ground staff of American Airlines last week.
The solution lies in more inclusion of people with disabilities in life. I don’t know American Airlines hiring practices but, when you see people with disabilities in valued roles, perceptions change.
If I were the Vanderhosts, my lawsuit settlement would include real and measurable benchmarks in hiring people with disabilities and in-service training of all employees about the diversity that makes our world great.
— Jo Ann Simons