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Airline iPad Policy Sparks Disability Dispute


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American Airlines is taking heat for requiring a teen who is nonverbal to stow the iPad she relies on to communicate during a recent flight.

Carly Fleischmann, a 17-year-old with autism from Toronto, lambasted American Airlines on her Facebook page earlier this week for limiting access to the iPad she uses to speak.

On her way home from Los Angeles last Friday, Fleischmann said that a flight attendant told her to put away the tablet for takeoff and landing and was unwilling to bend even after Fleischmann’s aide explained that it was a communication device.

“She stated to me that it was the policy of the airlines that I couldn’t have my iPad and that with all her years of flying that she’s never seen or heard anybody using an iPad to communicate before,” wrote Fleischmann, who said that her communication needs have always been accommodated by the crew on previous flights.

“My iPad to me is like a voice. Can you imagine being on the airplane and (being) asked not to talk for over 25 minutes,” she wrote, adding that she was ultimately allowed to keep her iPad out after the captain of the plane intervened but the device had to be placed “in front of my seat out of my reach.”

Fleischmann, whose intellectual capabilities went unknown until age 11 when she began to type, is well-known with her story having been featured on ABC News, CNN and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” among others. She has a strong social media presence with over 42,000 fans on Facebook and some 26,000 Twitter followers and they were quick to respond, flooding American Airlines’ Facebook page to demand answers.

Airline officials responded directly to many of the postings indicating that they have reached out to Fleischmann privately, but that the flight attendant acted in compliance with the airline’s policy and federal rules.

“Our flight attendants are responsible for following U.S. Department of Transportation regulations on the accommodation of customers with disabilities,” airline spokesman Ed Martelle said in a statement to Disability Scoop. “American’s electronic device policy is designed to be in full compliance with the DOT. Likewise, federal safety rules require the stowage of personal items during takeoff and landing and prohibit the use of electronic devices at the same periods. We regret any discomfort Carly felt or difficulty this may cause customers.”

Federal rules and American Airlines’ policy on the use of electronics make exceptions for certain medical devices including hearing aids and pacemakers but do not specifically mention assistive and augmentative communication devices.

Late Wednesday, Fleischmann said she was working to get a meeting with representatives of American Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration to discuss the matter.

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Comments (16 Responses)

  1. Michael says:

    I don’t believe the flight attendant acted with malice. Especially with the comment of “Never heard that before” when you work with the public, you hear some interesting excuses. It is a shame that the attendant was so jaded though. However, I feel this is a great example of how the rules aren’t keeping up with the times and the advances being made. Hopefully, given her public status, Fleishmann can call attention to these discrepancies.

  2. KA101 says:

    Oddly enough, I’ve not heard any explanation *why* specific devices are safe but others aren’t. I’ve heard that the Evil Electronics such as computers or gaming devicies somehow mess with the ultra-delicate avionics, but surely whatever makes hearing aids safe ought to be replicable on a larger scale. (I could accept the idea that a pacemaker is OK because it’s inside one’s body. Hearing aids aren’t.)

    I’d say this is a good opportunity to revise the regs.

  3. Kelsey says:

    I completely understand Carly’s feelings towards the event and I definitely support her talking to AA to try and come to some sort of cohesive understanding and try to update safety regulations to accommodate those with disabilities. However, I do have to say that the flight attendant has been given a lot of negative media for something that was beyond her control. She was following federal regulations and laws, just doing her job, and was confronted with a situation that hadn’t been addressed in her line of work yet. She did what she thought was best and if prior arrangements hadn’t been made for Carly it would have compromised her authority on the airline if she allowed one person to do so and not others. In the same vein, can I imagine a situation where I’m not allowed to talk for 25 minutes? Yes, of course. It isn’t as difficult as she seems to be making it out to be. Now, I understand for the issue of safety – she should be able to voice any concerns or fears she may be having – so perhaps it can be stowed away somewhere still within reach and only permitted to be taken out in case of emergency during take off and landing. It isn’t as though she is being asked to keep it stowed away for the entire duration of the flight and it is for the safety of the masses that she is being asked to do so. A little understanding in both direction, both AA and Carly, is needed to remedy this situation.

  4. hdemic says:

    I will never fly with my cerebral palsy daughter again. It was 9 ways of crazy. Saying that I believe anything you can’t hold on to in rough weather or god forbid a crash becomes a danger to others or yourself. It will fly around in the plane and hurt some one.As far as evil intent from the flight attendant most of the general public know nothing about communication when it comes to diffeent. Thats driven from isolation and seperation by churches and schools. Well thats off subject. but I had throw that in there.
    mom of disabled young adult in west mich

  5. JoAnn Irrgang says:

    I am a Special Education teacher and frequent flyer and she can shut up and read the Sky Mall catalog for ten minutes just like the rest of us……get serious Carly. You don’t blab all day in school on the IPad so don’t pull the disability card for this!

  6. paul says:

    Well, when and if the the FAA decides that it is safe to give people transmitters during takeoff and landing fair enough, but why should an airline make a safety exception – especially since it was her aide who did the explaining to the attendant?

    Of course she wants to talk to someone during takeoff and landing and that is why AAC specialists have preached for years that everyone needs a lowtech alternative for the times when a device is unavailable – it isn’t just in the pool you need one. Who is she going to talk to during takeoff and landing except the person next to her for which a letter board should be adequate.

  7. Annee says:

    Doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request – take offs and landings? If the disabled wish to be totally included in society, they too will have to make compromises. Otherwise it would appear that the disabled do not want to be included, but rather be sequestered in special privilege. I am also concerned that a non-verbal person would depend solely on an electronic device that could fail at anytime due to a variety of causes.

  8. Static Nonsense says:

    i have run into this problem before. both for my medication [stored in my carrying bag] and my ipod [communication and coping method for dealing with crowds, background noise and pain]. we may do not know how exactly the flight attendant responded emotionally to this situation, but i know that at least with my case, it was condescendingly, as if suggesting that i was just trying to ‘get out of it’. i wasn’t. both are absolute necessities for me to have direct access to in order to fly safely. if exceptions are made for hearing aids, why are other forms of communication devices not? they serve the same function, even if they do not meet the preconceived notions of what assistive technology is.

  9. Long Island Disability lawyer says:

    There are times when policy can be amended to meet the needs of those with disabilities. It is questionable if electronic devices used during takeoff and or landing really pose a safety risk. However given that it is a possibility spending a few minutes without an ipad is not the end of the world.

    –Long Island Disability Lawyer

  10. Kat Lyons says:

    I flew to DC, Boston and Cincinnati on Delta this spring and was never asked to stow my iPad. I believe I was restricted from using the internet and cellular data during takeoff and landing, but I could still read a book on it, for instance.

  11. Leticia Ruiz says:

    Carly sorry to hear what happend to you with all the challenges someone with special needs has to face on a daily basis as a mom I always wonder how I would feel if I was in that situation. Howeve it’s worst to hear someone who identifies herself as a special education teacher as JoAnn Irrgang and Anne who does not identify her relationship too any one with special needs would put a young women down for speaking up and who has the courage and determination to be a voice to those who don’t have a voice. I do have to say as far as JoAnn Irrgang she has no business teaching any kid specially those with special needs I will make sure my daughter never steps into her classroom door. What a shame to hear all he negative coments against Carly. I am proud of you Carly and your parents who have influence you to stand your ground please keep up the good work seek your dignity and respect as a member of our society it is because of people like you so many people with special needs like my children have a better world. . Thanks to you and people like you who have spoken up demanding changes in the law JoAnn Irrgang has a paying job. I pray she has a change in heart and make a difference in the life of kids with special needs. I challenge you to see how privilage she is to walk into that classroom and be proud of her possitive influence in some one life perhaps create life leaders like you please consider your position or seek another job. As far as the flight attendant I would like to say ignorance is not an excuse it all boils down to the matters of the heart toward people with special needs.

  12. Lisa Smith says:

    Wow, all for an Ipad? Get this! A wheelchair user on an airplane has to SIT there on a plane sometimes for HOURS knowing if the plane has trouble we are toast! A wheelchair/powerchair/scooter are all stored in the storage cargo of a plane. There is no way for us to reach them until the plane lands and a worker brings them to us. We can not unboard until this is done. Carly was accommodated at the end. This was only for take off and landing that the device is stored. This is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Learn to pick your battles Carly because this isn’t one.

  13. MichaelP says:

    Thank you Lisa, my sediments exactly.

  14. MichaelP says:

    Lol,, sentiments, iPads fault!

  15. Mary says:

    As a Special Educator for over 20 years, I have seen and heard many issues that should have been addressed more and weren’t due to budgeting, staffing, etc. I have also seen and heard many issues that were addressed that wasted our time, as they weren’t really the issue at all. It is difficult to have someone judge what the others should do until they step in the shoes of the person(s) involved. Special Educators put up with a lot…there is no down time as in regular education, as you constantly have to take care of numerous challenges. The teenager was asked to put it away like everyone else is expected to do during takeoff….which took how many minutes to comply? Now she’s holding up the plane for people that are on a time frame or have to catch that connecting flight. She complained that she wasn’t allowed to talk for 25 minutes. My question to that is do you communicate with your IPAD EVERY minute of the day or do you take breaks? I would not recommend anyone texting or typing for that much time, as it will create problems like arthritis, carpal tunnel, etc. The time allotted for takeoff, etc. is not too much to ask for anyone to put up their stuff. Most kids think that it is their right to have their cell phone, ipad, etc. out in (regular or special) class and everywhere they go ….it is not a right, it’s a privilege. If it’s used specifically for communication, then not talking for several minutes is not too much to ask. Last comment: Kids (and even some adults) still need to realize that there are appropriate times to discuss issues and that they should do so using manners. This is an issue with a lot of people nowadays who think they can raise a big stink to get the attention they need.

  16. Amanda says:

    I am truly shocked by the comments below. This girl is incapable of communication without this device. Yet, you imply she is selfish and spoiled for wanting to be able to communicate on an airplane? This isn’t her prefered communication method (texting over talking) this is her only method. Imagine you had no tongue. Now wouldn’t you feel anxious if someone came by and told you that the tablet you write on needed to be stored out of your reach. What if you had an emergency? What if the stewardess or your seat neighbor asked you a question? Really people what ignorance!

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