Recent headlines about people with disabilities facing difficulties while traveling are troubling – just this week, the Vanderhorst family from Bakersfield, CA was not allowed to board an American Airlines flight home from visiting family on the East Coast, after they claim a pilot discriminated against their son Bede, who has Down syndrome. Stories like this one demonstrate the need for the airline industry to work with families to learn what to expect when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) travel.
One chapter of The Arc, The Charles River Center in Massachusetts, is leading the way in this type of education. Working with Massachusetts Port Authority, JetBlue, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), The Charles River Center has created a new program called Wings for Autism.
Parents of children on the autism spectrum have a lot to take into consideration before making travel arrangements, from how their loved one will respond to the lights at the airport, their comfort level with airport security talking to or touching them, and how the noise on the plane will affect their child.
Wings for Autism sets up simulations of airport travel and security at airports across the country, giving families and airport and airline personnel an opportunity to do a test run for air travel.
At a recent simulation at Logan Airport in Boston, volunteers from JetBlue including flight attendants and pilots, staff from United Airlines, TSA officials, and ticket counter agents practiced the routine of air travel to prepare parents and children for what to expect when traveling. The simulation required families to clear security, board the plane, fasten their seatbelts, and prepare for take-off. For children who had issues with the various steps of the simulation, behavioral specialists were on hand to help parents and children work through the exercise.
While the program’s primary goal is to help children and parents, there is also an orientation process for TSA and airline staff. This is the kind of education that appears to be desperately needed across airlines. And The Arc is looking to expand this program, so that more families and airline and airport personnel can make flying a little smoother.