During my tenure as the President and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), the leading human rights organization for all individuals with Down syndrome, NDSS has spearheaded campaigns pertaining to a multitude of issues ranging from employment, housing, civil rights and healthcare. At NDSS, we have firsthand experience of the ugly discrimination that continues to exist around the world and regularly address tragic situations such as Iceland’s more recent efforts to eradicate Down syndrome to the widespread practice of declining medical care to people with Down syndrome.
To everyone’s delight (and, considering 2017’s political climate, surprise), our United States Congress has excelled in advancing the interests of individuals with Down syndrome, who are now living longer, more productive lives than ever before. We have collaborated to create avenues for financial security and economic empowerment through the passage of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. In fact, a few weeks ago, NDSS joined by leading members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to announce the formation of a new nonpartisan Congressional Work Group on Disability Employment, which aims to end antiquated 1960’s laws, that hold individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities back from seeking full independence and employment.
Our NDSS mantra is that if you are not at the table, you are on the menu; In 2017, we have brought more individuals with Down syndrome to that figurative table than ever before through our national grassroots advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and in state capitals across the country, through our National Buddy Walk® Program and a litany of campaigns aimed at shifting the disability landscape.
Thus, you can imagine our surprise when NDSS learned of the blatant and disgusting discrimination against an adult with Down syndrome, Sean Cross, aboard United Flight 783 on October 15th flying from Los Angeles (LAX) home to Washington-Dulles Airport (IAD). Sean, a 25-year-old Eagle Scout, and an employee of a local coffee and chocolate shop, was asked upon boarding this United flight if he was willing to assist in an emergency situation as he was seated in an exit row. Sean answered “yes” and proceeded as we all do to board the plane. Unfortunately, when seated on the plane, without the second “exit row” mandatory question, a flight attendant approached Sean and his family, to move them to alternative seats on the plane — they simply told his family that they would not be allowed to remain in their seats and if they did not move they would be forcefully removed from plane. During this discussion, three flight attendants refused to look at, or even speak, directly to Sean.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “FAA’s rule on exit row seating says that airlines may place in exit rows only persons who can perform a series of functions necessary in an emergency evacuation.” Sean’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were 100% violated — as he was ready, willing and able to assist if a situation would to arise. Sean, without even the opportunity to speak or advocate for himself in this tragic situation, was discriminated against for no other reason than he has Down syndrome.
Of course, this is not the first time the airline industry has been exposed for their culture of discriminating against individuals with disabilities. In 2012, American Airlines humiliated Bede Vanderhorst, who happens to have Down syndrome, by blocking his entry to the plane because the airline “did not want an individual with Down syndrome sitting in first class” (an ironic choice of words, indeed, considering the airline’s low-class exhibition of authority). And who could forget that this is hardly United Airlines’ first trip down discrimination lane?
These first-class cases of discrimination against individuals with Down syndrome or other individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not condoned by NDSS in any setting, be it recreational, professional, educational, airborne, idling or otherwise.
At a moment when the disability movement is gaining wider social justice and inclusion in the U.S., it is clear that United Airlines, and, more generally, the airline industry, is stuck in a feedback loop of discrimination, putting short-term profits over the long-term goals of the community they claim to serve. The truth is that people with Down syndrome make meaningful contributions to their communities every day, yet they continue to face injustice, as evidenced by yet another egregious act on behalf of the airline industry.
To be sure, to advocate a boycott against the airline industry would be remiss: after all, the mission of our organization is to work with all people, not againstthem, in order to make the world a better place for all individuals with Down syndrome. NDSS has reached out to United Airlines multiple times on behalf of the Cross family in order to explore ways we can work together, be it through a training video including individuals with Down syndrome, the hiring of an airline attendant with Down syndrome or even a working group across the airline industry dedicated to learning about how best to serve customers with disabilities.
Each attempt has been stymied with silence and secrecy.
United Airlines, during another flight last week, offered a form letter apology to Sean. In this blatantly cookie-cutter correspondence, they provided no indication they plan to take our concerns seriously, even after our offer to collaborate to bring widespread change to the limping airline industry which, as demonstrated, could desperately use a PR boost before it is dragged ever further toward oblivion.
We hope the United Airlines leadership, especially Mr. Oscar Munoz, takes our concerns seriously and takes NDSS up on our offer to sit across the “table” with our leadership and the amazing Cross family. It is time to roll up our sleeves and discuss how we can incorporate disability awareness, sensitivity curriculum and training tools on how to interact with an individual with Down syndrome or any other intellectual disability. It is not just the culture of United Airlines, that needs an overhaul, but the entire airline industry as well.