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United Airlines kicks autistic girl off plane for being ‘disruptive’

When Dr. Donna Beegle asked a flight attendant for help accommodating her special-needs daughter, she never expected to be escorted off her flight by police officers, but that’s exactly what happened last week when Donna and her family were returning from a family vacation to Disney World.

Dr. Beegle, a mother and poverty advocate from Oregon, tried her best to anticipate and meet the needs of her 15-year-old daughter, Juliette, who has autism. However, as anyone raising a special-needs child knows, even the best laid plans go awry, and that’s exactly what happened during a layover in Houston.

Juliette wanted something to eat. According to a post on Dr. Beegle’s Facebook page, the family had stopped for dinner beforehand, but Juliette wasn’t hungry at the time. They had a backpack full of the teenager’s favorite snacks — a contingency plan of sorts — but the teenager didn’t want anything in it. She started to become agitated and, having an aversion to cold food, asked for something warm to eat. This was where the trouble started.

Donna paid for a chicken sandwich, but since it was cold, Juliette wasn’t having it. That was when she turned to the flight crew for help. She wanted to know if there was hot food in first class that she could give to her daughter. She would pay for it, of course — it didn’t matter what it was. She offered to buy a little bit of rice, just something warm for her special-needs child, who at this point was in tears and getting increasingly more agitated.

The problem? Donna hadn’t paid for a first class ticket, so she wasn’t going to get any first class food. No, they wouldn’t make any exceptions for a girl with autism. For 40 minutes, as she watched her daughter get more and more upset, she pleaded for a little help. Finally, frustrated, she said, “After she has a meltdown and tries to scratch in frustration, will you help her then?”

That did the trick. The flight attendant brought a meal back, and Juliette happily watched Pocahontas with headphones while she ate. All was well.

Except, a few minutes later, an announcement was made. The plane would be making an emergency landing in Salt Lake. “We have a passenger with a behavior issue,” the flight attendant told the passengers. Two police boarded the plane and escorted Juliette and her family off, despite, according to Beegle, gathering over 10 pages of statements from fellow passengers that said the family hadn’t caused a disruption.

In a video of the incident, taken by a fellow passenger, you can hear people say things like “it’s ridiculous” and “that’s going to be a lawsuit.”

Video Credit: Zaynahort

It is ridiculous. Where was the need to humiliate the family this way? Juliette was not a threat, and when Donna warned that her daughter might “scratch,” she wasn’t issuing a threat; she was asking for help in de-escalating a situation that could have been a lot worse.

Families traveling with special-needs children need support, not petty punishments. Donna drew a parallel between what she sees as an advocate for the poor and what she experiences as a mother:

“This was a sheer case of ignorance. Prejudice, ignorance and mistreatment are all too common toward people facing poverty. The parallels between special needs and poverty are striking in that both are causes for judgement, misunderstanding and mistreatment.”

One observer in the video was right — this is going to be a lawsuit. But Donna isn’t suing for money. She’s asking instead for additional training for airline staff when it comes to special-needs passengers. She has also filed a complaint with United and the FAA over the incident.

More airlines behaving badly

United apologizes for humiliating family with special needs child
American Airlines breastfeeding policy called into question
Kicked off a plane for breastfeeding

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