Valley family pushes disabled rights for airlines

September 5, 2012 12:47:26 AM PDT
A Valley family is demanding policy changes for American Airlines. They tell Action News they were denied a first class flight with their son, simply because he has Down syndrome.

The airline said Wednesday afternoon the Vanderhorst family was reimbursed for the price of their first class upgrade, which they purchased two hours before the flight.

Action News spoke with a local aviation expert who said that is not enough since the pilot had no authority to deny the Vanderhorsts their seats.

For 16-year-old Bede Vanderhorst all is back to normal. His parents said he's back in his regimen of school and home life. Those are important factors since managing his Down syndrome requires routine.

But Robert and Joan Vanderhorst are still fighting mad over an experience with an American Airlines flight crew Sunday night.

"It made me feel like why are we being picked on, singled out. I haven't experienced discrimination like that in my life," Robert said. "It hurt, it stung."

Robert and Joan told Action News the crew at an airport in Newark, New Jersey requested they catch another flight. They said they were told Bede's behavior was concerning.

In a statement to Action News American Airlines said, "The young man was agitated and running around the gate area prior to boarding flight 119 from Newark to Los Angeles on Sunday evening. Our pilot noticed and asked a Customer Service Manager to talk to the family to see if we could help him calm down and get better acclimated to the situation. That effort was ultimately unsuccessful, and we made the decision to have the family rebooked on a different flight out of concern for the young man's safety and the safety of others. The family chose not to fly American, so we helped re-accommodate them on another carrier's flight to Los Angeles. Asking the Vanderhorst family to take a different flight was a decision that was made with careful consideration and was based on the young man's behavior. Our Newark customer service team worked with the family in an attempt to make him as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately, the crew determined he was still agitated, and at that point the Vanderhorsts were asked to take a different flight."

Robert said Bede was not agitated, and no one asked about him. Now these parents are taking a stand.

"What I would hope is that the pilots and boarding staff of all airlines learn to treat people with disabilities with respect, with dignity," Robert said.

"I'm willing to stand here and say 'hey, this is what happened and this is terribly wrong,'" Joan said.

Local aviation expert Kent Scott said airline pilots are responsible for the safety of their crew and passengers. But he thinks the pilot was not worried about safety.

"It looks like his actions were about making it more comfortable for the people in first class not having this young man be in their presence," Scott said over the phone.

Robert and Joan have received national attention because of the incident and said they want to protect other families from similar embarrassment.

The Vanderhorsts said Bede's behavior is in the range of a five year old's.

They want the airline to better train their crews on assisting disabled passengers. If nothing changes, they said, they will file a lawsuit. That's something Kent Scott said will be almost impossible for the pilot and American Airlines to defend.


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