When Ignorance Becomes Discrimination

Mobility Management editor Laurie Watanabe discusses the implications of Pride/Quantum PR GM Mark Smith’s ejection from an American Airlines flight.

When American Airlines (AA) flight attendants and grounds crew approached Mark E. Smith, Quantum Rehab’s GM of public relations, on March 27, he was doing what he’s done a hundred times. He was sitting on a plane, the window seat in row 24 that day, about to fly home. 

Mark has cerebral palsy, so air travel includes a few extra steps. There was preparing his power wheelchair for the cargo hold, his own pre-boarding, transferring to his seat, a half-hour wait as other passengers boarded. Two women sat down in the middle and aisle seats of row 24. Mark had been working the Los Angeles Abilities Expo for the previous five days; I’d chatted with him in the Quantum Rehab booth two days earlier. He was looking forward to getting home. 

And then, the AA ambush. As Mark relayed in his popular Wheelchair Junkie blog, an AA employee told the two women to get out of their seats because Mark was being removed from the flight. He thought his power chair might be the culprit; he assured them that it complied with AA regulations. 

It didn’t matter. Mark was strapped into a transfer chair and rolled up the aisle past nearly all the passengers on the plane. Without an explanation. As if he were a criminal. As if he didn’t belong. 

He was left in that transfer chair on the jetway. In a phone conversation, he told me he felt the jetway sway as the jet pulled away. He was stranded there for a half hour. 

His power chair eventually arrived, but its legrests had been removed and incorrectly replaced. As a result, Mark’s positioning was completely thrown off. 

What ensued: an AA employee wrestling with the legrest in full view of passengers, and eventually seeking privacy in an accessible bathroom stall to get the legrests on correctly. 

But why was Mark kicked off the flight? He still doesn’t know. 

“I flew out [to Los Angeles] on American Airlines on the exact same model plane,” he said. “I flew home on American Airlines without a problem. It truly remains a mystery. The only explanation I heard between the lines was that the pilot wanted the passenger with the disability and the wheelchair off the manifest. He did not want me on that plane. 

“That’s blatant discrimination.” 

AA has remained quiet. Mark said he was not questioned by airport personnel or any other AA personnel upon deplaning, and he was rebooked on another AA flight that took off five hours later — thus implying that airport authorities didn’t have security or other concerns about him, and AA didn’t, either. 

As of this posting, AA has not responded to my e-mail or phone requests for comment. Aside from a curt Twitter request for Mark to contact the airlines privately, he hasn’t heard from them. His only compensation thus far has been a $12 airport food voucher that Mark wryly noted didn’t even fully cover his grilled cheese sandwich and Sprite at LAX. 

Ironically, a few days before this, Mark and I had chatted about the courage that it took for a wheelchair user to travel, particularly by airplane, given the general lack of accessibility and awareness in the world. 

That conversation was prescient. 

Mark has remained stalwart — more gracious than I could be, resolute but not bitter. 

“I’m not looking for anything other than to raise awareness of this type of discrimination,” he told me. “These dehumanizing situations occur, and they shouldn’t, and I don’t want them to happen to anybody else. 

“There are so many people who are already struggling with anxiety and fear and self consciousness. Can you imagine if this had been someone’s first flight who was struggling with those emotions already? They wouldn’t leave their house again.”

Read Mark Smith's original blog post at https://powerchairdiaries.com/.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.


Sat, Apr 1, 2017 Dan Duley Omaha

I have seen the results of poorly transported wheelchairs, mishandled individuals and ruined vacations. What if we convinced the airlines to do better? Offer to train baggage handlers and transport personnel. One well trained individual available for every shift as a "travel ATP" of sorts to get passengers and their equipment safely to their destination.

Fri, Mar 31, 2017 Joan Eisenstodt

I have limited walking ability -- but at airports and at home and most places, need my mobility scooter OR at airports, use the airline contracted services for wheelchairs. It is always awful -- I fly AA often (almost entirely since UA became even more difficult esp. transfers at ORD for anyone in a wheelchair) -- and tweet and call their "disability helpline" before travel and beg for help bec I'm a) afraid of missing a flight, b) desperate for help going to the restroom, c) frustrated about being the last one off a plane when even the crew has left and the new crew arrives! AA cites their policy - they are to "touch" a PWD traveling alone every 30 mins. They don't. Rev. William Barber, the civil rights icon, can also attest to the treatment he's received and documented on social media. Recently, after multiple tweets, I had two great AA CS reps at CLT help me w/ a transfer to another flight. One stayed w/ me the entire time -- returning to the gate to which I'd been taken when they gate was changed, w/o my having to ask. (Another shout out to Marlyn Isaac and Lisa Ewer for all they did.) Shall we than talk TSA pre-check and how each airport is different for PWDs who need mobility assistance? LAS is the WORST. They have lied about who is responsible and no one helps. I have to travel for work too and reading this confirmed for me that "it's not just me". My anger is so great and like Mark,I'm waiting for answers too.

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