The Vanderhorst Family

Many of you have heard the disturbing news about Bede Vanderhorst, a 16 year old boy with Down syndrome, who was traveling with his parents when they were denied permission to board an American Airlines flight from New Jersey to California despite having paid for their first class tickets.

Much has, rightfully, been said in the media about this injustice. When you hear about the Vanderhorst family being rebooked onto another flight in the last row of the coach section with, reportedly, no other passengers allowed to sit within two rows of them, it is nearly impossible not to draw a parallel to the days of racially segregated buses.

For many, it might seem shocking that injustices like these continue to persist. Yet in Special Olympics we hear about way too many similar occurrences. Fortunately, like all civil rights movements that fight to create lasting change, our dignity revolution is finding its’ voice and demanding that voice be heard.

Hundreds of people with special needs and those that love them continue signing a petition on Change.org calling for American Airlines to immediately change any policies that allowed this particular injustice to occur.

Our Special Olympics athletes are taking to email and social media like never before – empowered to speak their minds, stand up for their rights and demand fair treatment and equal opportunities as valued members of society.

One such example is the email that I received below from my friend Martha Hill, a Special Olympics athlete in Wisconsin:

 Hi Tim,

I was watching the evening news last night as I always do at my house to see what’s going on in other communities and around the world or to see what the weather is supposed to be the next day.

I heard a story about a family with a young boy who took their son who has an intellectual disability to a concert. And while they were in the airport waiting to board the plane with their son who was sitting in a chair quietly waiting to get on the plane with which he was causing no  trouble at all. And when it came time to for everyone to board the plane the gate agent told the family that they couldn’t get onto the plane because of their son who has an intellectual disability and it was all taken by video with this mother’s cell phone.

And they tried to get their way but couldn’t and to me that is so discriminating and disrespectful and the parents of the young boy plan to sue American Airlines because of what happened and it’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and people who have a child or an adult with a disability should be allowed to travel on an airplane because as a person with an intellectual disability I have never been told that I can’t be on airplane and go somewhere with family or with someone I know.

Because this family was not granted permission to board the plane because of their own son and the fact that the mother was in tears because of it all and that really made me angry.

We all have rights and they will not be taken away from us.

Thanks for listening to me,

Let Martha’s voice inspire each of us to use our voices in this dignity revolution! Fight on!


Editor’s Note: Martha’s original email was modified slightly for clarity and topical conciseness, but not for content or voice.

16 thoughts on “We all have rights

  1. The level of ignorance from people is just unbelieveable! This is such a horrifying story, and no individual and their family should ever have to go through this! This story absolutely breaks my heart. We all have rights, and this is just totally unacceptable.

  2. I empathize with the family and individuals who have been singled out for not being able to ride the airways due to a family member having intellectual disability. It shows more the ignorance and unwillingness on the part of the airlines to accommodate. However, I do not want any customer service based business to be forced by law to change their practices, however just or unjust their policy. In the capital system, we, as consumers can effect change by withholding our business, boycotting companies, thus compelling these shortsighted companies to change their policies and practice, because it is in their best interest to do so. What I don’t like is the use of the legal system to inhibit the rights of others, business owners their rights to provide service to whomever they wish, because their policies were callous and limiting the privileges of another. Riding the airways is not a right, but a privilege provided by airlines. Use your influence as a consumer to garner sympathetic support such that it hurts AA’s bottom line by not using their services until they change their abhorent and antiquated policies. More often, a company will be compliant beyond the letter of the law when they choose to change their policies than when they are forced to.

  3. Thank you for sharing this horrible story. I went to the Change petition and signed. I am keeping my fingers crossed that American Airlines will do the right thing and apologize to this family and meet with them to ensure this never happens again to any other family with a child with disability. We’ve listed you on our blogroll at BLOOM, a magazine on parenting kids with disabilities. Please consider visiting us and sharing with your readers:
    Thanks! Louise

  4. Such unbelievable ignorance, I travel quite frequently and American Airlines just lost another customer and everyone i pass this on too, this is unacceptable!

  5. I have a special child too and had it happened to us… i would have called MEDIA right away! AMERICA needs to know that American Airlines needs some kind of an education! How can he be a “security risk”! I have always thought that America is the best place to be for our children and adults with disabilities… still, there’s a need to educate some people about our children and their rights!

  6. I hadn’t heard about this incedent and still have a hard time believing something like this could happen in 2012. Heartbreaking and discouraging!

  7. This is disgusting, I had never read or heard of this before, I must say as the grandmother of 3 delightful children with DS it broke my heart. My grandchildren travel regularly by plane and thank God they havent had ant problems, We must continue to stand up and fight for the fights of ALL Gods children, Paricia Humphries .September 12 2012

  8. Martha is a formidable woman. She knows her rights, she is an informed voter and she is not afraid to speak on behalf of her friends. She has felt the sting of ridicule and the pain of being left out and has risen above it all. She exemplifies courage and defines conviction. No one, no one ever, has the right to deny her the rights guaranteed under the law or those granted by her creator. She lives her life to the very best of her ability. The rest of us might learn from her example.

  9. It takes a big person (or big corporation) to admit failure. All American needed to do was to say they made a mistake and would work hard to ensure that it didn’t happen again. We’re waiting American.

  10. I really thought that we were beyond the prejudice. At least in the way things are “handled” by major corporations. And honestly, it doesn’t sound like anything, or anyone, needed “handling”! Shame on AA. I’ll be choosing other airlines in the future.

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