unfriendly skies: disability discrimination by JetBlue

jetblue bathroom

I’m writing this with an attempt to both shine light on the disability discrimination my daughter faced while flying on JetBlue and protecting her privacy regarding her specific toileting needs.  As such, I have omitted details which I believe would violate her rights.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I could spend 100% of my waking hours filing complaints related to violations of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) on behalf of Evelyn.  Not only that, but I wouldn’t be able to address every single way in which my daughter is discriminated against.

It is notable that Evelyn only uses mobility aids part time.  If she were a full time user, I cannot even imagine the level of discrimination that she would be subjected to.  Further, I have only a broad understanding of the ADA–therefore, only the most egregious violations hit my radar.

Evelyn is only eight–people are more willing to accommodate disabled children.  I am not disabled.  We have resources to challenge discrimination.  Most disabled people, adults in particular, do not have the time, energy, and resources to pursue violations to their rights–say nothing of the fact that they are routinely ignored and/or spoken over.

Because I am not burdened with a long history of violations to Evelyn’s rights–only eight years, I am typically able to gently educate people–given my position of privilege, I feel like I have a duty to do so even when I feel like laying on the floor and pounding my fists into the ground at the injustice.  In general, probably because Evelyn is a child, people are receptive and attempt to accommodate.  But every so often, we encounter discrimination that is so flagrant that I am left with no other option than to pitch a fit.

What follows is my account of one of the two most despicable cases of discrimination that we have faced in Evelyn’s eight years (the other being an experience at Disney World).

Two years ago, when we went to Florida to visit my husband’s parents, we flew on JetBlue.  JetBlue refused to allow Evelyn to preboard with other disabled passengers as she apparently didn’t look disabled enough–although she was a 60+ lb child riding in a carrier on my back.  This year, when we checked our bags, we asked the agent how we should ensure that Evelyn is able to preboard.  She told us that we should merely tell the gate agent–that it would be no problem.  We explained that we had done this previously and had encountered problems.  She told us that it would be no problem.  To make a long story short, on our flight to Florida, we were, again, denied preboarding.  We were able to board after those that purchased extra leg room etc.  This meant that there were already about 20 people on the plane, standing in the aisles, putting their luggage away, and creating further barriers and obstacles for Evelyn.

During our flight down, I discovered that it was no longer possible to provide Evelyn with  the safe and hygenic assistance that she needs in the bathroom because she had grown and the size of the bathroom on the airplane is the size of a postage stamp.  While in Florida, I did some research online as to how to accommodate Evelyn.  I learned that the flight attendants can help to create a safe and private space and that there might be a larger restroom at the front of the plane from folks with disabilities similar to Evelyn.

We were granted preboarding on our return flight–probably because we put Evelyn in a wheelchair instead of on my back.  As soon as we got on the plane, I explained the situation to our flight attendant, Alia.

She replied, “You should have called JetBlue prior to your flight to make arrangements.”   It wasn’t just her words.  It was the blatant hostility in which she uttered them and every word there after.

I told her that it is against the law for an airline to require to prenotification of disability.

She told me that she didn’t know and that she would check with a supervisor.

In the meantime, another flight attendant, Jillian, overheard our conversation and easily came up with an acceptable solution which she demonstrated.  She merely opened both of the rear restroom doors.  This resulted in a private space which sealed both bathrooms off from the main cabin and provided the space necessary to assist Evelyn in meeting her toileting needs.  We agreed that this was acceptable and settled into our seats.

Several minutes later, our fellow travelers had boarded and Alia returned.  From several rows away, Alia loudly informed us that a supervisor was coming to discuss our issue.  We quietly indicated that Jillian had provided a solution that was acceptable.  Alia began speaking to Jillian about it from the aisle–Jillian was in the galley area. Jillian discretely explained her solution to Alia.  Alia, with no regard for our privacy began to rebuff the solution.

She, again, with no regard to Evelyn’s privacy, returned to us and said something to the effect of, “I have two children in wheelchairs.  We always drive because of toileting issues.”

I again explained that it is against the law not to accommodate a disabled person.  At this time, I was speaking about the ADA as I was unaware that there is a different Act governing disability for air travel–the ACAA.

Several minutes later, a supervisor named Frankie made his way down the aisle.  With complete disregard to privacy, he asked us what the problem was.  We were completely mortified at his lack of discretion and quietly told him that Jillian had resolved our issue.  He demanded that we tell him the details of the solution–we quietly requested that he go to the galley and talk to Jillian about it.

He did so–again with zero regard for our child’s privacy.  He loudly rejected her solution and continued to reject it to us.  Loudly, of course.  He told us that the restrooms needed to be “sealed off.”  I explained that Jillian’s solution accomplished this and explained what she had demonstrated.  He dismissed it as a possibility.

At this point I asked him what we should do.  He told us that there isn’t a protocol for this.  I explained that this is a violation of my daughter’s rights as a disabled person, that the result of refusing to accommodate my child could potentially result in a health risk for both her and the other passengers if she does not have access to a lavatory.  He said there is not protocol again and left.

Alia and Frankie treated Evelyn and my family with a thorough lack of disrespect.  I cannot adequately articulate the manner in which their words dripped with scorn.  I feel strongly that they not only denied my child’s rights to reasonable accommodation but that they went out of their way to deny them publicly and with complete disregard for my child’s humanity.  When my child is subjected to such degradation, I am left with the overwhelming belief that JetBlue not only wishes to deny access to the accommodation of the most basic human needs– but wishes to publicly humiliate and punish my daughter and her family for daring to believe that she has the right to travel on one of its aircrafts.

My dear friend, Kassiane, is a disabled adult activist.  She often talks about not being considered a real person.  Her words echoed in my head during the flight and I cried angry, sad, and impotent tears.  Evelyn is not a real person.  For the rest of her life, she can expect to hostility and contempt regarding the accommodation of her needs.  She can look forward to the suggestion that she not do things like fly on airplanes because she is disabled.  She will be regularly dehumanized by public discussions around her toileting needs.  She will suffer the indignities and health risks associated with having her toileting needs disregarded.

Able bodied real people are not subjected to such affronts to their humanities as a matter of course.

Shortly after arriving home, I received a message from a customer support representative.  When I connected with her several days later, I was surprised to learn that she was lead to believe that the reason Evelyn was denied accommodations was due to safety issues.  She indicated that she didn’t understand how safety issues were a concern because no one uses a safety belt when using an aircraft lavatory.  The representative to whom I spoke was understanding and apologetic.  She indicated that she would research the situation and get back to me.  I sent her a followup email after reviewing the ACAA which governs the accommodation of disabled people with my complaints and desired outcomes.
1.  Alia’s suggestion that we needed to contact Jet Blue prior to travel seems to violate the ACAA given the accommodation we requested.
2.  The implication that we should have driven rather than flown because of our daughter’s disability seems to violate the ACAA.
3.  Both Alia’s comment that she never had such a question and Frankie’s indication that there is no protocol highlight the fact that JetBlue staff are clearly not appropriately trained as required by the ACAA.
4.  The demeanor of both Frankie and Alia were hostile and their words suggested that our disabled child is not welcome to fly on JetBlue.
5.  The lack of discretion and privacy surrounding our daughter’s disability and personal care needs was dehumanizing and degrading.  I cannot imagine an able bodied person being subjected to such a public and hostile discussion around his toileting needs.
6.  JetBlue failed to make a reasonable accommodation for our disabled child.  Having both doors fully open would have provided the same level of privacy to my daughter and the cabin as would have resulted in an able body person closing one restroom door.
7.  The restroom doors on the rear of the aircrafts have the handicap insignia on the doors (I have a picture which I would be happy to provide if you need it).  This is misleading given the size of the bathrooms–a person requiring assistance and/or a transfer from a wheelchair to the the toilet could not be safely/logistically accommodated.  Thus the restrooms are not accessible.
8.  The result of JetBlue’s failure to make a reasonable accommodation resulted in unsanitary and unsafe conditions for both my disabled child and the rest of the passengers on that flight.
9.  I briefly mentioned yesterday that on our flight from Boston to Ft. Myers on February 21, 2015, we asked the employee who checked our bags how to arrange preboarding given the fact that we were denied this in 2013 on a JetBlue flight (I believe I filed a complaint at that time).  She told me to ask the gate agent.  We identified our daughter as disabled at the gate but were not permitted to board prior to those that had purchased extra legroom and those that had status on your airline.  We were only permitted to board when families with small children boarded.  During our conversation, I believe you used the term “silent board” for the type of board that the ACAA mandates Evelyn is entitled to. This was problematic and resulted in difficulty navigating the aisle due to the passengers that had already boarded.
9.  After reading the entire Act, I learned that a CRO should have been made available to us by phone or in person in Ft Myers after we told both Alia and Frankie that our daughter’s legal rights were being violated.  This did not happen–unless Frankie is a CRO.  If he is, I am requesting that JetBlue confirm that he is a trained CRO and that he has had the training required by law.  Further, if he is, I am wondering why he didn’t identify himself as the airline’s CRO and am expressing my concern that he did not fulfill his duties in this important role and certainly did not demonstrate that he had the training, experience, and communication skill required to resolve complaints related to disability discrimination.

Desired Resolution
1.  That JetBlue develop and share with us a concrete plan for a mandatory and comprehensive training its employees regarding disabled passengers.  The plan should include paid consultation with disabled people representing various types of disabilities (including invisible disabilities like Autism) and consultation with and approval of organizations which are primarily comprised of disabled leadership.  My family is very involved in the disability rights movement and I am happy to provide you with the names and contact information of both disabled leaders and the names of various organizations with whom you may wish to consult.  I believe that disabled people have the most valuable input to provide with regard to the creation of a plan.  However, caregivers may also offer good information from a logistical standpoint.   As the caregiver of a child with multiple disabilities, I am happy to provide (unpaid) input/feedback around the development of a comprehensive training and/or the names/contact info of other caregivers who provide assistance to disabled individuals (both adults and children).
2.  Specific actions taken by JetBlue to address the hostility directed at my child and me by Alia and Frankie.
3.  Compensation for the violations to my daughter’s rights as a disabled passenger,the discomfort and health risks my daughter suffered as a result of being forced to sit in soiled undergarments, the dehumanizing treatment she endured, the embarrassment my entire family suffered due to your employees’ lack of discretion around the discussion of her disability and toileting.

I asked that JetBlue let us know its intentions by March 17th and indicated that we would pursue a DOT complaint and civil legal recourse should JetBlue not choose to attempt to rectify this matter to our satisfaction.

12 thoughts on “unfriendly skies: disability discrimination by JetBlue

  1. I am both sorry and infuriated that this happened to you. It’s not at all okay that they did this to you and Evie.

    I hope that JetBlue has the good sense to agree to your restitution.

  2. I also flew JetBlue recently. I called before hand asking for pre-boarding because I have mobility and pain with mobility issues. They said they made a note associated with my tickets (they asked all my information and ticket information) and to tell the person to look it up when I was at the gate.

    Obviously, when I got to the gate, they didn’t see anything but said, like you, I could board during silent boarding “after the wheelchairs”. But then, like you, they called their special members and extra legroom first! I was already in pain walking to the terminal (which I found out on the way back they could have offered me a wheel chair, free of charge, and pushed me and my luggage) I couldn’t stand and wait while everyone put their bags in so I just jumped in line then, forget waiting more, and they let me on just fine.

    I wish they let you knew more things they offer, such as when they first mentioned a wheelchair I thought they were just gonna give me one to use, and I have shoulder problems so that wasn’t going to work, along with all my luggage. Didn’t find out til on the way back the wheelchair gets pushed by a person and they carry my luggage too. HUGE difference.

    • Hi Lillian,
      When I spoke to the JetBlue customer service person, she let me in on the key words, “silent boarding.” My understanding based on my conversation with her is that silent boarders get on the plane before EVERYONE. I will have to clarify this with JetBlue when I speak to them again. My understanding of the ACAA leaves me with the impression that disabled passengers do not need to be using a wheelchair in order to silent board. It shouldn’t have to be this hard!

  3. Hi I am so sorry you had to experience this, I myself am writing a complaint to Jetblue regarding discrimination. Such a shame.

  4. I have mobility issues due to extensive nerve damage, which can also be an invisible disability. The only way I can get the accommodations I need is to make my disability visible. When I have to travel for work I call the airlines to make sure my ticket states I need a wheelchair. I insist on assistance through the airport and am vocal about discrimination when I face it (hours waiting in airports because I’ve been forgotten, refusing unsafe assistance, etc). While it’s embarrassing to be so visible, it’s just as embarrassing to have to try and walk, hold and open things, or do other tasks like other people and fail. I’m an adult, my accident scars have healed, nobody sees me. Nobody believes it. Our situations aren’t exactly the same, but I definitely recommend being as vocal as you need to be until you get what you need. Be unafraid and unashamed – your daughter is a person just like everyone else and deserves the reasonable accommodations you’re requesting. Hopefully she’ll get used to you insisting on upholding her rights and have it as a lesson for when she’s older that she deserves the same respect.

    You love your daughter, be unafraid 🙂 I’ve met some incredibly kind and helpful through my disability adventure and I hope you find the same. Not everyone is an asshole and some people will help stand up for you!

  5. I have had problems with Jet Blue about accommodating my daughter’s disability. I file a complaint with the airline and they call me and they gave me 100 dollars each in our travel bank for our troubles but that never fixes the problem because we encounter the injustices all the time we fly. I’m so stressed out when ever we fly out of JFK to MCO. Jet Blue needs to really have a staff workshop for its crew members on how they speak and treat people with disabilities and their families. It’s heartbreaking. I’ve written about 5 letters about the injustices we encounter by the hands of Jet Blue crew members being insensitive to my daughter’s needs. I have to travel soon again to Disney and I am not looking forward to it because of how they treat us. It might be better this time because I am bringing her wheelchair. What was Jet Blue’s response

  6. I and my 63 year old travelling companion experienced the bitter and unconcerned behavior that the handicapped that Jet Blue doles out to the Black, elderly and physically disabled. We called ahead for wheel chair reservations for Louretta. Flying to SFO fron Long Beach, CA. Two wheel chairs were at the Deplaning at SFO but were only given to one White female. The attendants refused to allow Louretta to use one of the two empty chairs.. The other returned empty. Louretta will have major knee surgery within days. She is a 40+ year supervisor of a chain of stores who had to walk. we took pictures of 10+ wheel chairs stored nearby. I feel it was racially motivated. Lead Duty “Alex” weakly apologized and said his supervisor, “Troy” was absent and he could not take any complaints nor refer me to anyone who could. I was told to call 1-800-Jet Blue. 5382583. I am 78 year old senior. Jet Blue refused to allow Louretta to use the empty chair returned to the gate while they gave another chair to an elderly white passenger. Neither of us are prejudiced but this was blatant racist. Other passengers offered help. The number I called told me I was lying and becoming “irate” when I asked for return reservations to assure a wheel chair. My returned flight was threatened when I was accused of becoming “Irate” on the phone.My name is Paul.

    • I am not surprised by your experience Paul. My daughter is has CP and we are from the West Indies. I complaint to the corporate offices. I write them a nice note. I give them blow by blow details. I get and call and response within 24 hours.They usually compensate us with credit for the next flight. JFK is the worst to fly out of. Orlando is the second. I’ve gotten compensated at least 5 times already. They know me very well. They have problems accommodating people in wheel chairs for some reason. They refuse to put my daughter in a wheel chair several times. It was a battle. I started taking my phone out video taping. I don’t play. I know my rights. i threaten to show it to the media. It’s not even a racist thing to be honest because the people doing it was people of color. They need to train these people on how to work with people and their families with disabilities. I told them this on several occasions. Oh we are working on it they told me about my case that happened in both NY and FL. They do reimburse you for your trouble but they need to train their workers.

  7. I have severe walking disabilities and need wheelchair assistance at the airport. My JetBlue flight out of JFK was a nightmare. I was provided with wheelchair assistance to the gate then told to sit in s chair because the assistant needed it for other passengers. I reminded the JetBlue clerk three times I needed a wheelchair to board. All three times he assured me he would get me a wheelchair. Pre boarding for other wheelchair passengers began and I again requested a wheelchair that never arrived. Boarding for extra legroom passengers was announced and as a passenger with an extra legroom ticket I held onto furniture and the counter and waved to the woman calling the extra legroom passengers towards the front of the line. I made my way to the front and again asked for a wheelchair. The woman said I needed to go back to the end of the line, which by this time was quite line. I told her I can’t walk and need a wheelchair and I have an extra leg room seat. A jerk on line shouted “boo hoo she needs a wheelchair. Boo hoo”. The jet blue clerk said I never told her I needed a wheelchair. I advised her that I had advised the JetBlue clerk standing next to her. He turned and walked away and never acknowledged my requests. Meanwhile the male passenger continued shouting BooHoo. She needs a wheelchair. The JetBlue clerks laughed along with him. I shouted “why don’t you shut up”. He would not, nor would any if the jet blue employees say anything. They joined in his intentionally humiliating me. A wheelchair appeared and as I was being wheeled down the jet ramp the idiot continued to make fun of me. When I got on the plane I discovered my seat was next to the man who ridiculed me. He immediately said “oh no. I’m not sitting next to her”. He immediately and loudly demanded I be thrown off the plane. The JetBlue agent who was at the gate came onboard and loudly stated that I needed to comply or I would be thrown off the plane. She wanted me to move to an empty sest at the rear of the plane. I refused to move again reminder her of my inability to walk. She then asked surrounding passengers to change seats with the man who ridiculed me. Finding one who agreed to do so she then offered free flight vouchers to the man who ridiculed me and the surrounding passengers. I sat in my seat crying as the flight crew offered free drinks to the loud mouthed man and while standing next to me talked about how they have to put up with difficult passengers.

    • I am so sorry you had to go through that. How rude was that man. I hope you wrote to the corporate offices of JetBlue and told them this story. It’s not right. I bring my own wheelchair now. I purchased one for traveling, which is light weight and easy to fold. I can’t deal with their nonsense. I push my daughter down the ramp. Of course they try to stop me. “Oh no Ms we are suppose to help you.” Me: No need. I can handle this. It’s not easy. Complain until changes are done.

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