Why a disabled passenger had to crawl off a United flight

October 26, 2015, 3:57 PM UTC
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United Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at San Francisco International Airport on January 23, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
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D’Arcee Neal was forced to crawl off of his flight last week when United Airlines’ (UAL) staff failed to provide him with the proper assistance, CNN reports.

Neal lives with cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair for transportation. He had been waiting for the flight attendants to bring him an aisle chair—a narrow wheelchair that can fit down airplane aisles—to help him disembark in Washington, but it had been mistakenly removed before it was his turn to exit the plane. While waiting for a new one to arrive, he attempted to communicate to them that he couldn’t wait any longer because he had to use the restroom.

He reached his tipping point and, because his disorder makes it difficult for him to use the airplane bathroom, he crawled out of the plane with flight attendants looking on. When he reached the exit he found that the aisle chair was ready for him. Neal told CNN: “I expected them to ask to assist me, but they just stared.”

Neal works as a disability advocate for the federal government. He was traveling back from San Francisco where he met with Uber to discuss its policies regarding disability access. The company has recently come under fire for denying service to disabled passengers.

He did not report the incident. Rather, one of the onlooking flight attendants who had later felt guilty brought it to the attention of the airline. United contacted Neal the next day to apologize, to inform him that the third party manager responsible for wheelchair access at Washington National—a non-United employee—had been suspended, and to offer him $300 in compensation. Neal says he has had similar experiences with various different airlines, but this was the first time that the company had even offered an apology.

He has since been contacted about filing class-action lawsuits and, though he doesn’t know whether he’ll participate, he does think it’s important for the industry to “take a hard look” at their policies.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not clearly state that the third party manager responsible for wheelchair access at Washington National was not a United employee. The story has been updated to clarify this.

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