Disabled woman left terrified after being ‘bullied’ by ‘ableist’ airline worker
A disabled woman says she was left ‘terrified’ and 'in pain' after an American Airlines worker allegedly threatened to call the police on her.
Jen Deerinwater claims she was left unable to work for days after an airport worker began menacing her over a disagreement about the best way to claim her suitcase.
Tragically, the incident is one in a long line of ‘ableist’ occurrences that have left the 39-year-old journalist - who suffers from fibromyalgia, a long-term condition that causes pain all over the body - scared of traveling.
Watch the aftermath of the incident here:
The situation arose when the worker took Jen, who is a member of federally recognized tribe Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, in a wheelchair to baggage claim at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on April 14.
Rather than wheel her to the carousels where the bags from the flight were seemingly coming in to, the staff member took Jen - who often finds walking incredibly painful - to lost baggage, stating: “Sometimes they put them here”.
When Jen expressed doubt that her luggage would be there and asked the female employee to push her close so she could check, the worker allegedly refused to help and began to shout, her voice becoming “louder and louder”.
The argument continued when the American Airlines employee finally took the writer to the carousels and asked her to point out her bag from three suitcases. She insisted on keeping Jen several feet away from the carousel, leaving her unable to draw a conclusion, and shouted that she was wrong the whole time.
Things took a dark turn when Jen told the woman she was being rude and tried to get her name to make a formal complaint, with the worker allegedly yelling she would call the police.
Jen is in tears as she finally leaves the airport:
“She wheels me closer, still yelling and arguing with me this entire time and then she says at one point: ‘If you want to make a complaint, make a complaint’. And I say: ‘Okay I will,’” Jen told VT. “I turned around on the wheelchair and went to snap a picture of her ID badge, which was hanging on a lanyard around her stomach area, so I could have her name. That’s when she really loses it. She starts yelling at me screaming: ‘You can’t take my picture, I’m calling the police!’.”
With bystanders staring and no one offering help, Jen became panicked and told the worker she needed to stand away from her. However, she refused and instead drew in closer, something that left Jen - who was unable to get away - having a panic attack, shaking and in tears.
The 39-year-old, who believes the airport worker’s intention was to “abuse her power over me as a disabled person,” claims she was reminded of worrying statistics when the worker announced her intention to call police.
Native Americans are killed in police encounters at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group, according to 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and almost half of the people who die at the hands of police have some kind of disability, claims a 2016 report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a disability organization.
Commenting on the incident, Jen said: “I told her I felt really unsafe with her and she needed to stand away from me. She refused. I don’t know how many times I told her, please stand away. She was like ‘I can’t do that’.
“I was like ‘It’s fine if you don’t want to leave the area, I’m just asking you to stand like 10 feet away from me. I don’t want you by me'. Every time I said that, she would just get closer to me instead.
“It felt extra threatening and bullying and also if you’re so afraid of me that you’re threatening to call the police, why are you refusing to walk away from me? That part doesn’t make anything sense.”
She added: “Her threatening to call the police felt she was trying to flex whatever muscles she had, so to speak. And then when I was repeatedly telling her ‘Please walk away from me’ and she wouldn’t, that really felt controlling and it’s the kind of behaviour of abusive people.
“You’re exerting your boundaries and they don’t respect them and that’s what she was doing. I’m in a wheelchair, there’s no way for me to leave the area. It felt like she was just really trying to be authoritarian and abusive her power over me as a disabled person.
“I was crying and shaking and I’m not really someone who cries in public. Usually, if I feel like I’m going to cry, I’m going to go to a bathroom and hide. But I was so scared.”
The incident ended with the woman’s supervisor coming over and asking her to step away from Jen, something she allegedly only did after being told twice.
The journalist has said it agitated her chronic pain so much, she didn’t work for the following few days, stating: “I haven’t been able to work the last couple of days because my pain was higher [because of the incident at the weekend] and I have been so stressed out, I can’t focus on work."
Commenting on the situation, Justin Franco, an American Airlines communications representative, said: "We are aware of allegations of misconduct by a vendor employee of American Airlines at Washington Reagan airport (DCA). We take these allegations very seriously and do not ever want any customers, team members or our vendor partners to feel uncomfortable."
Sadly, it isn’t the first Jen has experienced trouble as a disabled person traveling. In fact, she is beginning to lose count of the number of frightening, frustrating and discriminatory travel incidents she has had.
Two weeks before this incident, she had a panic attack when a United Airlines staff member threatened to cancel the wheelchair meant to carry her to her connecting flight.
Jen had ordered the wheelchair when she booked her journey but, fully aware that they often get forgotten, when she got to Columbus Airport, she made sure to remind four airport employees before she flew, as well as one flight attendant on the plane. However, it was still not there when she landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
After asking three more members of staff, she was faced with an employee who accused her of having an attitude and said she would cancel the wheelchair.
Jen barely caught her connecting flight to Washington DC after being delayed by an hour and was in extreme pain and panic by the time she got on the flight.
Commenting on the incident, a spokesperson for United Airlines - which gave Jen $250 credit as compensation after she complained on Twitter - said: “We apologise to Jen for the service not being what it should have been.”
The Cherokee Nation citizen had a similar incident in September 2018, and can recall several other ‘ableist’ occurrences of this kind, including a member of airport staff breaking her rib brace, forcing her to replace it with her own money, and airport security opening her liquid medicine prescription but not closing it properly so it poured into her purse.
Unfortunately though, she sees no end in sight for these issues.
“This is an ongoing thing,” Jen said. “I do have to travel some for work, so when things like this happen, it’s not just causing me more pain and a source of anxiety, it also impacts my ability to work and have a living and have a career. It’s an ongoing problem for people with disabilities.”