In early May, the Beegle family of Portland, Oregon was flying home from Orlando, Florida. Mom and dad with two children in tow. What should have been an uneventful flight turned in to an ordeal which the family will never forget and an embarrassment that United Airlines should not ever live down.
The Beegle family had completed the first part of their trip when they had a layover in Houston, Texas. Three of the family members ate during the layover but for whatever reason the fifteen-year-old daughter Juliette did not. No big deal, right? She’d be able to get something on board during the next leg of the flight, after all.
Once on board, Juliette’s mom, Dr. Donna Beegle, saw that her daughter was getting hungry. It is at this point that I need to note that Juliette is autistic. Like so many kids with one disability or another, Juliette has “her thing.” It’s just something unique or special or quirky that many folks with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum, have. I know an autistic boy who has “a thing” for water and another child who has “a thing” for fire trucks. For one girl I know, her “thing” is music, especially little kid songs like Old MacDonald. Juliette Beegle’s “thing” is hot food.
Dr. Beegle asked the flight attendant on the United flight for a hot meal for her daughter. No dice said the steward, those meals are only for first class passengers and you are in economy.
Dr. Beegle shared with him that Juliette was autistic and really needed a hot meal. She offered to pay extra for the meal. She asked them to please put a cold meal in the microwave and just heat it up. Anything that could just help her daughter make it through the rest of the flight. She pointed out that when her daughter’s blood sugar drops, she gets agitated and sometimes scratches. Passengers seated near the Beegles also beseeched the United crewman to please help Juliette. Eventually, the flight attendant relented but not before telling the captain that there was a passenger with “a behavior issue” on board.
The captain made an emergency landing in Salt Lake City where paramedics and police officers boarded the plane and, at the direction of the United crew, escorted the Beegle family off of the plane. The flight attendant and captain apparently decided that Dr. Beegle’s comment that her daughter sometimes scratches was a direct threat to cause physical injury.
When I discussed this issue on my show (which airs from 3PM to 6PM on iheartradio and NEWSRADIO WRVA) I was blown away by the vitriol I encountered. The immediate need of some people was to assign blame. In the angriest and nastiest of tones, caller after caller decried that Juliette’s mom was to blame. After all, she should have prepared better! It’s all her fault they screamed. OK, if you need to blame someone go ahead and jump on her, I guess, but I’m still not sure how she was supposed to keep a meal hot on board the flight. Maybe she should have planned better and snuck a microwave on the plane in her carry-on.
I posted this story on Facebook and was met with a barrage of uncaring and unfeeling folks quoting F.A.A. rules and regulations. See, they wrote, the talk of a scratch from a disabled child really is the same as some guy pulling out a knife in the cabin. No difference at all. Letter of the law, don’t ya know. I could almost hear a character from a bad World War II movie shouting, “ze rules are ze rules.” Check that box, kick those people to the curb and let’s get on with it.
Here’s what every parent knows. Plan and prepare. Do we have batteries charged for devices? Snacks? Drinks? Clothing? Etc? Guess what? There’s always something that is forgotten or misplaced … Sorry about that, but we’re mere mortals.
Here’s what I know being the father of two typically developing boys and a disabled daughter. My sons can usually deal with whatever the problem is. For The Princess, it’s a little different. She’s a twelve-year-old girl with the mind of an eighteen month old. She does not speak at all. Her communication skills are minimal at best. She’s just learned to walk in the past year or so. She likes to hum and sometimes she just cracks herself up laughing and squealing. We know that her behavior might be out of the norm on occasion, but she’s still a person worthy of understanding and compassion. Oh, and sometimes she just needs to hear her old man sing Old MacDonald to help settle herself down. Sorry, if I am sometimes a little pitchy.
There are a few lessons to be learned here. The lesson for United Airlines is that the old maxim of all publicity being good publicity does not hold true, especially in the age of social media. If that one flight attendant had simply said, yeah I see your problem let me grab a meal for you; United would have been seen as heroes. They would have been saluted for showing that some people still do care. Instead, they come off looking like creeps and jerks.
The lesson that we, who are parents of disabled children, have learned is that there are some people in the world who don’t have a single shred of compassion or humanity anywhere in their bodies. I can only suggest to them, that they bow down at night and give thanks to their God that their children all developed according to plan. You see, if any of your kids had just one chromosome out of place you’d be over here with us, and right about now the view is not especially nice.
Jeff Katz hosts an award winning daily talk show, heard from 3PM to 6PM on iheartradio and NEWSRADIO WRVA. You can follow him on twitter @jeffkatzshow and also at facebook.com/radiokatz