Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Standing United Against Stigma

There have been a lot of opinions shared over the last several days over an incident that occurred on United Airlines involving a teenage girl with autism.  If you haven't seen the story, check out the link here.

I've spent the last two days reading about this incident and feeling all the feelings.  Anger and sadness that a family had to be humiliated and embarrassed over an incident that could have been controlled.  Annoyance and frustration that more hasn't been done to combat ignorance and educate people in all areas of the workforce on developmental disabilities.  Defeat because the task to educate and end ignorance seems monumental.  Finally though, I've landed on determination.  I am more determined than ever that ignorance like this needs to be addressed on a much broader scale than it is currently.

I don't fully blame the flight attendant or the pilot for not handling the situation properly.  Ignorance is a very real thing and appears to be responsible in this case.  At what point do we stop letting ignorance be our excuse for everything though?  How many negative situations have to occur before someone stops and thinks, "Maybe I need to learn more about this so I'm better able to handle a similar situation in the future"?   I understand flight crews and pilots having safety concerns when passengers appear disruptive.  I've lived in a house where tantrums were a regular occurrence and where concerns increased as the size of my brother increased and he struggled to control his physical aggression.  Yesterday I had a large metal trash can thrown at me by a student who couldn't verbalize his thoughts and feelings and felt that aggression was the best way.  When there is an issue involving safety, I am all for taking the necessary precautions.  The problem that I have with this situation is that the teenager was not disruptive in any way and did not pose a safety concern to any passenger or the flight crew.  So why the emergency landing?

As someone who has lived and breathed in this world for the last 21 years, I can't help but be frustrated by the lack of initiative that some people take to learn how to interact with others who are different from them.  So let me just throw a few things out there:

That 15 year old girl that you just kicked off a plane?  She is a human being that has feelings just like you and me.  She may not be able to verbalize those feelings in the same way that you and I can, but I guarantee you that she knows that it was her disability that caused her family so much trouble that evening and feels embarrassed for the attention that her needs have garnered from the national media.    I've seen the hurt in the eyes of the seventeen year old that heard his teachers making negative comments about a behavior he couldn't control.  I've wiped the tears of the fourteen year old who so badly wanted to play in the basketball with other children in the neighborhood but was ignored because he didn't socially fit in with the standards set by his peers.  Emotions and pain are a universal language.

Those parents that you just kicked off a plane?  They are trying their best to help their child live a productive and successful life, despite all of the obstacles standing in their way.  You don't see the private struggle and battles that they go through daily, sometimes hourly, to make sure that their child can live in this socially constructed world that seems to be doing everything in it's power to ignore her.  You don't see the exhaustion from dealing with the sixth tantrum of the day, this one over having to wait for food to be cooked at the restaurant where they've stopped for dinner because Mom was to tired to cook after handing the first five meltdowns of the day.  You don't see the hours spent in doctors appointments and school meetings trying to find the best help for their child or the hours painstakingly planning for any possible situation when traveling with a child with a disability.

In no way am I claiming to be unbiased here.  I have a sibling with developmental disabilities and I'm a school social worker for this same population.  I live and breathe these stories daily and have learned to adapt and be understanding.  But despite all of his quirks and tantrums, my brother is one of the best snugglers I know and wouldn't intentionally hurt a fly if he could control all of his impulses.  The same student that threw a trash can at me started his day today by giving me a massive bear hug and apologizing again for losing his temper.  Both of them are kind, gentle young men that simply have problems communicating frustrations in the same way I do.  That doesn't change the fact that they are human beings that deserve the same respect that you and I expect from others.

I am a firm believer in education and the role that is plays in diminishing the stigma attached to developmental, intellectual, emotional, and physical disabilities.  The solution to this problem is larger than the airlines partnering up with disability advocacy groups and putting some positive PR into the media to show the "changes" occurring.  It is going to require time, money, and effort from employers in all industries to make sure that employees are given the resources needed to best work with this population.  It's not going to happen over night.  But at some point, we as a society need to make a change.

The number of people with disabilities aren't going down, and inclusion in mainstream education and society is becoming more of a reality for people who may have had limited resources in previous generations.  We're long past the days of institutionalizing people with disabilities and pretending they don't exist and that we can't be bothered with them.  It's time to take a stand and be united in the fight against stigma and misunderstanding.  Anyone else up for the challenge?

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