October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It was established by congress to raise awareness of the employment needs, and contributions of, individuals with all types of disabilities. I am the CEO of a non-profit organization that provides services to the disabled, such as assisting a client fly on an airline with a service animal, or reserving a hotel with ADA accessibility, among other things. We started the company after seeing travel suppliers disrespect handicapped passengers and violate disabled traveler rights.
Airlines are in business to make money, not to replace Mother Theresa, and I get that. But I also feel that there is a basic level of common decency which is necessary in any business operation. I’ve been reading some complaints against Delta on ConsumerAffairs.com, and one scenario struck me as particularly disturbing. Betty of Huntsville, Alabama, has MS (multiple sclerosis); her recent September 22 posting alleges after she boarded a Delta flight to Nashville she was unceremoniously thrown off:
… the guy walked on the plane and ask me to follow him. I said, “Why?” He said I couldn’t fly on this plane because he said I was intoxicated and I needed to sober up. I said, “But no, I haven’t drunk anything.” He said, “No,” I could catch the next flight which was about 5 hrs. “Wait,” I said. “Please, I haven’t drunk anything,” and I started crying and I was so upset. I said, “I have MS,” and apologize if I didn’t talk plain. I was out of breath. I was crying and I said, “Please, I need to get on this flight. I have to pick up my kids when I get to Nashville.” He said, “Go sit down.” I was so embarrassed and sick and couldn’t believe this but I couldn’t do nothing but wait to catch next flight 5 more hours.
I believe her story. I once witnessed a Delta flight attendant start to evict a man under the exact same circumstance. Fortunately, he was traveling with someone who knew him and objected to the menace, citing the passenger had MS.
Another handicapped passenger, Alesandra of Brooklyn, NY, wrote about Delta:
… the flight attendant refused to help me place my carry-on overhead. I explained that for medical reasons, I could not do any heavy lifting. I even explained that my lung collapsed last year. However, she instead told me that if I could not place it overhead, it would be sent to be stored with the rest of the luggage under the plane.
Alesandra’s complaint sounds consistent with the claims of a partially-paralyzed man who recently sued Delta, alleging he was forced to crawl on and off flights while the flight attendants looked on and did nothing to help. According to The Huffington Post: “His lawsuit said he had to crawl across the tarmac, up and down the plane’s stairs and down the aisle to his seat coming to and leaving Nantucket, Mass. The suit said the ordeals were humiliating and caused wrenching pain a week before he was scheduled to have spinal fusion surgery.”
Carrie Salberg has muscular dystrophy and requires a ventilator to breathe. She alleged Delta flight attendants told her she was not allowed to have it on the aircraft even after she had gotten preapproval; then Salberg was allegedly kicked off the plane.
Delta has already been caught and fined US$2 million for failing to meet regulations protecting passengers with disabilities. The DOT [Department of Transportation] found the carrier frequently did not respond to handicapped customers’ complaints on the matter.
I remember my first experience flying with Delta; I was thoroughly impressed by its wonderful employees and their southern charm. With all the mergers and growth, Delta has become a monstrous operation carrying over 120 million passengers a year. The number of employees required to pull off this gargantuan feat is astonishing; and, of course, when you have that many people, there are going to be some rotten apples in the basket along with some employees who simply don’t care to learn the difference between MS and intoxication. Hint: drunk people smell of alcohol.
My non-profit travel agency is very proud to serve the disabled. I have muscular dystrophy, and every one of the directors, except the medical director (a physician has a disability. We are strong advocates for disability awareness and urge airlines to treat disabled people with dignity.
This week at our local ASTA [American Society of Travel Agents] trade show, the Delta Vacations reps for Michigan set up a booth and handed out brochures. Being National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I came dressed in my muscular dystrophy awareness clothing. We actively employ the handicapped. Everyone knows that pink is the color for breast cancer awareness; muscular dystrophy’s color is lime green, like the delightful pies from Key West. It certainly gets attention, and I guess that’s the whole point of the color. After the trade show, one of the Delta Vacations reps walked by me and sneered, “I see you really dressed well for tonight’s event” [insert sarcasm]. I was a bit shocked, and I had no reply for her nasty comment. Then she smirked, “You used to wear nice clothes and were handsomely dressed.”
I’m sure she gets to fly in first class on Delta for free and is used to people who meet her requirements for snooty couture. Personally, I find it shallow to judge people by their clothing. A couple of travel agents witnessed her affront and were completely shocked. Bear in mind, the Delta Vacations rep added attention to the bizarre encounter because she was carrying a tree. I kid you not. She was carrying some sort of flowering tree that was about 12 feet tall. The trunk was as skinny as a broom handle, the top had some leaves with flowers, and the bottom had a ball of roots. It looked like she had just ripped it out of the ground. One of the travel agents who overheard her remarks, and apparently not this Delta employee’s greatest fan, chirped, “The witch is leaving with her broomstick and is about to fly to Abaddon.” Another agent said, mocking Delta Airlines’ slogan, “She loves to fly, and it shows.”
Maybe it’s not a good idea for Delta employees to make negative judgments about the rest of us. I suggest Delta needs another US$2 million fine to incentivize its management to get tough on disrespectful employees. US$20 million in fines might add some sting. It’s challenging enough to have MS or MD without the added discourtesy. I really believe that Delta employees need more disability awareness training; they also should be taught about awareness colors for causes such as pink for breast cancer awareness, teal for anti-bullying awareness, red for HIV and AIDS, lime green for muscular dystrophy, and gold for childhood cancer.
Follow Anton Anderssen on Twitter @Hartforth