Down Syndrome

American Airlines forbids 16-year-old with Down Syndrome from boarding flight

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: American Airlines, Down Syndrome, passenger

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(NaturalNews) A California family has accused American Airlines of refusing to allow their son to board a plane because he has Down Syndrome, a congenital condition characterized by mental disability and distinctive facial characteristics.

When Robert and Joan Vanderhost and their 16-year-old son Bede arrived at the Newark Airport, they upgraded their tickets to first class. At boarding time; however, airline staff informed them that the pilot had observed their son and decided that he was a "security risk." They were not permitted to board.

According to a statement by the airline, "The young man was excitable, running around, and not acclimated to the environment. The pilot attempted to calm him down... his efforts were not successful."

The Vanderhosts dispute this story, and they have evidence to back up their claims. According to Robert, Bede did not run, make loud noises, or behave offensively while at the gate, but rather walked around with his father and sat quietly. When confronted by airline personnel, Joan pulled out her cell phone and began to take a video, in which her son can be seen sitting and quietly playing with his hat.

"He's behaving," Robert says in the video. "He's demonstrating he's not a problem."

"Of course he's behaving. He's never not behaved," Joan replies.

"He didn't want a disabled person... in first class"

Airline staff told the Vanderhosts that they could not be seated because their first-class seats were too close to the cockpit, and their son might distract the pilot and force an emergency landing. Robert dismissed this concern as absurd.

"My son is no different from a four or five-year-old as far as behavior," he pointed out.

"I kept saying, 'Is this only because he has Down syndrome?' " Joan said.

"The problem is this pilot thought my son might not be like most people. He didn't want a disabled person disturbing other passengers in first class," she said.

When the Vanderhosts refused to accept an alternate ticket, airline staff called airport police. The Vanderhosts were re-booked on a different airline, where they were seated in the very back row of the plane with no other passengers permitted to sit within two rows of them. An American Airlines spokesperson said they would be reimbursed for their first-class upgrade fee.

Bede has flown more than two dozen times before without any problems. This was his first time flying first class.

"This little boy had a seat in the first class area, and for some reason, they didn't want that. That wasn't acceptable," Joan said, accusing the airline of discriminating against her son in order to maintain a certain "environment."

Her husband agreed with that interpretation. "Usually my son gets his snack and falls asleep, just like most people," he said. "The problem is this pilot thought my son might not be like most people. He didn't want a disabled person disturbing other passengers in first class."

They speculated that the pilot might have been intimidated by Bede's size - he is 5'1" and weights 160 pounds.

The Vanderhosts are now planning to sue American Airlines for violating Bede's civil liberties and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Robert says he hopes airlines will change their approach to people with disabilities.

"It's ridiculous and groundless to claim that this kid created a security risk," he said. "It was the pilot's insecurity. I paid for those seats and there was nothing that should have prevented us from taking that flight."

Writing on, Adan Salazar further interpreted the incident as indicative of the state of modern airport security.

"Demonstrating the sad neurotic state of airport security, a 'safety risk' can be declared by a pilot [any time]," he wrote. "Simply labeling someone a 'security risk,' a new line can be drawn for anyone, including people or children with mental disabilities."

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