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Did you see the story about the young man with Down’s Syndrome who was denied a seat in First Class on an American Airlines flight because the pilot considered him a flight risk?

You can find the Huff Po piece —>HERE<— and American Airlines’ public response —>HERE<—.

I found this story to be horrifying, not only as the parent of a Special Needs Child, but as a member of the human race.  According to the news story from PIX 11 (link found at the top of the Huff Po piece) the pilot observed the young man and determined he would be a flight risk up in First Class.  Since 9/11, the doors to the cockpit have been remade to withstand attacks from terrorists.  How does a person with Down’s Syndrome fall into the same category as a terrorist?  If he is truly a flight risk, how is that they then moved him to the back of a United Airlines flight? I imagine that if a person is a flight risk they are just as much a flight risk in First Class as they are in Steerage.  How does this happen?

The answer is simple – ignorance.

The pilot made assumptions when he saw Bede Vanderhorst.  Whatever it is he thought he knew about people with Down’s Syndrome, he applied that to Bede, without so much as trying to understand any of the alleged behavior he says he saw him displaying, and made his decision.

This combination of ignorance and assumption is what keeps me up into the wee hours of the night – until there is a critical mass of awareness and understanding in the world of those with disabilities, ANY DISABILITY, how will my Brooke get by once she is an adult?  Will I always have to be there to explain to every ignoramus why his assumptions about her are wrong?  If this can happen to Bede, it can happen to my Brooke and any other child or adult who doesn’t fall under what others might consider typical.

Admittedly, there are two sides to every story, and we may not have all of the information available.    The Vanderhorsts have been very vocal in their complaint.  American Airlines on the other hand has handed out a simple statement and left it at that.  The airlines responded to a tweet of mine by directing me to the Facebook page.  Apparently the Department of Transportation is opening up an investigation of the incident.  I imagine that closed-circuit video of the gate will bear out the truth.

But I come back to the bigger topic at hand, and that’s the concept of making assumptions based on ignorance.  One of the greatest weapons against ignorance that we, as a caring society, have is awareness.  Awareness is the first step toward understanding and acceptance.  The thing is, this awareness thing, it IS working.  I see it in the halls of my daughter’s school and in the window panes of local shops.  People, every day people, are starting to shift.  Sure there is going to be the inevitable asshole who will find pleasure in making fun of those he doesn’t understand, but to some degree, I see change happening…slowly, but happening.  Heck, President Clinton mention both Down’s Syndrome and Autism in his speech on Wednesday night at the DNC.  Progress – it’s happening!

But what really frightens me is that some people who are in positions of power, say like this pilot or a congressman speaking on women’s reproductive rights, will decline the opportunity to truly understand the science or psychology of a situation because they do not want to appear weak.  They will ignore facts and push on with what they “believe” is right without listening to what’s really going on.  Guess what?  That is the action of a weak minded, weak willed person who is afraid that reality could shatter their long held views of the world.  Declaring something with authority doesn’t make it right – in fact, it is often a sign of inner weakness.  Yes, Bede’s mom was sobbing and his father was in shock.  Yes, sobbing and shock don’t lend themselves to allowing a person to be particularly articulate, but it is the duty of our leaders to lead and to listen empathetically  to those in pain, not bristle and put up walls.  It takes a strong man or woman to open themselves up to the possibility that they are not only wrong, but grossly wrong.  The bittersweet thing of it is that I find that strength more in the neighbor, the friend’s mother, the grocery bagger than in those who hold positions of power.

If we’re going to move forward as a nation, our leaders, both nationally and at the business and community level, are going to have to learn that admitting they are wrong, no matter how hard it may be, is not a sin, and is often the path to a better place.

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