A flight to Portland was diverted to Salt Lake City because the pilot felt the 15-year-old was being "disruptive."
This video, taken by a passenger onboard a United Airlines flight from Florida to Portland, shows 15-year-old Juliette Beegle, who is autistic, and her parents being forcibly removed from the plane. Now, Juliette's mother Donna is striking back, issuing formal complaints and suing the airline, just to bring awareness to discrimination against autistic people.
The Beegles were returning from a vacation at Walt Disney World when they encountered a problem with the airline food (as so many of us have). Juliette had refused her meal at the airport, and the plane had no hot food options for Economy passengers. Juliette doesn't eat cold food and wouldn't touch any of the snacks her parents had brought, so Donna spent 40 minutes trying in vain to get the flight attendants to bring her a hot meal from First Class. She offered to pay for it, but over and over she was told that it wasn't allowed. Juliette started to cry, and Donna pointed out that if she didn't eat, she might have a meltdown and start scratching (a common behavior of autistic individuals when frustrated). Only then did a flight attendant begrudgingly bring her a hot meal.
After that, Juliette calmed down and the flight continued smoothly. That is, until one of the flight attendants made an announcement: "We will be making an unexpected landing in Salt Lake due to a passenger in the back having issues." Donna didn't understand what was happening, until the plane landed and paramedics came on board. They asked if Juliette was OK, and if she had scratched anyone. Donna said that she was fine, and that she hadn't (even if she had, she was in a window seat next to her father, separated from any other passengers.) The paramedics left, convinced that their time had been wasted. Then, police officers boarded the plane and told the Beegles that they all had to leave.
Juliette Beegle. (via Facebook)
Donna was shocked. Juliette was calm, she explained, and hadn't hurt anyone. An officer told her, "The captain is not comfortable flying to Portland with your daughter on the plane. You have to leave the plane." Outraged, Donna raised her voice. She appealed to the other passengers, asking them if they had a problem flying with Juliette, and a chorus of them stood up for Juliette, pointing out that they just wanted to get back to Portland, and didn't mind if a disabled child came too. The police, however, were unmoved.
The pilot finally emerged from the cockpit for the first time, and confronted the Beegles. He told them, "Let's not make this situation worse." Maybe he should have taken his own advice before landing in the wrong city. The Beegles finally left the plane, making statements to the police, and were rebooked on a Delta flight leaving later that night. But Donna wasn't done. She posted a lengthy account of the incident on Facebook.
If you're keeping track, here are things that airlines consider acceptable disruptions on a plane: crying babies, noxious farting, and men refusing to sit next to women for religious reasons. I guess the only way they'll ground a plane is if a special needs child wants a First Class meal. First Class?! That's for rich people!
Now, Donna Beegle has issued formal complaints with both United Airlines and the FAA. She's also filing a discrimination lawsuit. She points out that Juliette has flown to five countries and 24 states, and has never encountered a problem until now. Even if Donna wins her lawsuit, she doesn't want any money. She wants any money won in the suit to go to training for the flight crew, so they'll be better prepared for autistic passengers in the future.
Accommodating people with autism may seem inconvenient to people who lack personal experience with the disorder. The needs of autistic people, particularly children, vary and can be demanding. However, in today's world, there is no excuse for any large corporation in the service industry not to accommodate them. In the US, 1 in 68 children is born with autism, and that number is growing. If we don't adjust to help them, by the next generation we will have made second-class citizens out of millions of the most vulnerable Americans. Avoiding that is worth an awkward flight or two.
If you disagree, read this subsequent post Donna wrote in response to some of the online critics. She knows what she's talking about.