Dawn Wilcox, American Airlines & Public Opinion

Dawn Wilcox, an American Veteran with a Disability (who happens to use a wheelchair), claims that American Airlines left her to sit in her own waste after failing to get her off the plane in time to use a restroom. American Airlines, for its part maintains that Ms. Wilcox was offered an aisle chair in order to assist her into the plane’s facilities, but that she refused the offer.

I do not believe she refused. I do not know of anyone with a disability who would refuse any assistance in using a restroom, especially if the need was dire, as Ms. Wilcox’s was. I believe she may have been forgotten by the flight attendant in the crush of people deplaning. In a MSNBC interview, Dawn states the airline attempted to make up for the inconvenience, and Ms. Wilcox was given a $100 flight voucher and a formal apology, but that no fresh clothing was provided for her to change into.

I have heard many comments on several websites, both expressing support to Ms. Wilcox, and some trying to discredit her.  Some commentators were more interested in trying to decide if her military uniform was appropriate attire for the event she was attending.  Some were saying that they were with her at the event and they could attest that she was loud or rude or otherwise was inappropriate, as if that somehow negates her embarrassment in the situation or makes her less worthy of receiving   timely assistance in that situation .

On the other hand, there were quite a few commentators who themselves had disabilities, and did what I consider to be an admirable job of explaining the usual airline protocol of “first on, last off” regarding passengers with disabilities Also there were many who outlined their own personal methods for dealing with such a situation as the one Ms. Wilcox experienced.  Basically, this boiled down to making sure that one’s carry-on suitcase contained all necessary items for cleaning up from and/or preventing such an incident in the first place. In reading some of the comments on the websites I visited, it strikes me that many of the commentators seem to have missed the point entirely.

It doesn’t matter whether she was wearing her uniform at an appropriate place and time or not. It shouldn’t matter if she was loud or rude or not. She was a human being in a situation which she asked for assistance in preventing, and she was denied timely assistance.  We are all human. Any one of us, with disabilities or without, may one day find ourselves caught short and embarrassed, no matter how well we plan.

While I agree, it is always best to be prepared in case of emergency; sometimes even the most careful plans can be derailed. I experienced a similar situation in an airport when, as I was traveling alone, I was left in a straight-backed chair with locked wheels. Though I wanted to push myself, the chair’s wheels were too small and too low to the ground for me to do so.

I did not leave the chair to search for a restroom myself, as I was unable to carry my bag and maneuver my walker at the same time. And even if I could have done so, I had no guarantee that the chair would be where I left it when I returned, as I had seen airport personnel gather up empty wheelchairs chairs at other airports…without checking to see if the former occupants would be returning. Since I was still only halfway to my gate at this point and would need the chair to continue my journey or else miss the flight, I saw no alternative but to wait until I could catch the attention of another airport employee. By this time, I was in such intense pain, I could barely sit. I had needed to use a restroom for six hours by this time.

Thankfully, I was able to avert a crisis when another employee noticed my distress and worked quickly to assist me. But my experience could easily have gone the other way.

I feel that better training is needed, both for airport and airline staff.  It doesn’t take much to ask a passenger with disabilities “How may I help you to our restroom?” once a need is expressed.  From personal experience, I can attest that this vital question is not often broached by staff at any point.

Persons with disabilities also need to self-advocate for needs as they arise, but how much self-advocacy can one accomplish if we have such a difficult time catching the attention of those who can help?  As the title of Nancy Mairs book, Waist High in the World suggests, one is already at a disadvantage when sitting down, as one is less likely to be as easily seen or paid attention to.

Dear readers…your thoughts, please.






3 thoughts on “Dawn Wilcox, American Airlines & Public Opinion”

  1. I can very well understand Ms Wilcox, she has all my support. I suffer from partial bladder incontinence, and I know how it feels to be left alone, not to be helped to the restroom exactly when needed. It’s terrible to feel ashamed just cuz our body doesn’t work properly anymore. It’s no one’s fault but it’s downright tragic.

  2. I’ve realized that simple things to other people like urinating and having a bowel movement aren’t so simple to others. In fact for some they have to plan their life around those simple things because they don’t want to be stuck somewhere that they can’t simply use the restroom. Or worse can’t control it and a accident happens. So maybe we could all reach out to one another. We might have a handicap but not in that department. So for those that do and you see someone near with an handicap maybe whisper to them that you have a problem and could you get some help. Or at least maybe they could help you in finding help. We can be strong for each other…..

  3. I’ve been in a similar situation as well. I was strapped to an aisle chair and then the attendant left. Meanwhile, the plane began boarding without me. When he returned I told him how upset I was and he asked me to pray with him. I’m a Druid Priest and do not follow a Christian path at all. I politely but firmly told him that I am a Druid and don’t pray to his god and asked him to board me.

    He then began spewign Chrsitian doctrine and propoganda at me vehminantly. He got down in my face and put his face inches from mine while he lectured me about the Chrisitan hell.

    I asked for help from one of the other attnedants and the lady taking tickets at the door. NO ONE helped me. I couldn’t get away from him as I was strapped to the aisle chair.

    Finally, several passengers refused to board until they got me on the plane. If it weren’t for them I don’t know what I would have done.

    I filed a complaint later and after months of calling and emailing learned that the employee was fired but I never received an apology from them for it. I now bring my own wheelchair so I am not at the mercy of the attendants when it comes time to board.

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