Disrespect & Ableism from a Southwest Airlines Representative: My Story

It has taken me a week to be able to write out my thoughts about my horrific recent experience with Southwest Airlines. Though I did encounter some very helpful and very compassionate Southwest Airlines staff that day, I am hurt, disappointed, and disgusted by the unprofessional and ableist way that I was treated by Southwest Airlines. 

Image is a picture of a Southwest Airlines plane flying above snowy mountains. Photo credit: capalhec

Last Friday (August 5th) I bought a one way ticket from Houston Hobby to Dallas Lovefield. I chose the 11:30 am flight so that I would arrive in ample time to be able to rent a car and drive to the funeral, which started at 2:30 pm in Dallas. After the funeral I planned to drive back to Houston in the rental car, as I needed to get back home that same day in order to return to my family and to care for my children. I had already spent the previous weekend in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex upon learning of my friend's death. 

I had taken the day off from work (unpaid leave) in order to attend this funeral, as it was the funeral of a friend (a mother of five) for whom I cared for very much. I have recently started a new job and am still under new employee probationary status, so it was a big deal for me to request the Friday off to attend the funeral of a non-relative. However, I took this risk, as she was a good friend of mine and neither she nor her husband are from Texas. I felt that it was very important to me to be able to be there to support the family and to pay my last respects to her as well.

Not long after boarding the flight around 11 am, there was some type of issue with the manifest that required them to have to call names to take attendance of each person on the plane. There was apparently some individual showing as not supposed to be on the flight who seemed to be on the aircraft. This created a delay with our departure. There was also some undisclosed maintenance issue that caused an additional delay. As we sat in the hot aircraft, our 11:30 am departure time came and went, and we were still on the ground.

The flight attendants tried to be jovial with the passengers and ease our concerns about the delays. However, after 15 minutes of waiting became 30 minutes and 30 became 45, I became increasingly worried. Like several other passengers, I pressed the service button for the staff and politely inquired if there was a way to get an estimate of how much longer we would continue to wait. Worried about missing this very important funeral, tears began to form as I asked my question, though I was still respectful and polite despite my emotions. 

I explained that I realized that several people were asking them questions and that it was not my intent to pester them, but I needed to some information because of the funeral. I shared that if our flight was going to be further delayed I would need to get off the plane to try to get the airline staff to rebook me, as there was a flight at 1:00 pm that I could try to catch instead. (There had been a flight at 12 pm, but we had already missed it.)

The flight attendants were kind and sympathetic to me and to the many other individuals who'd asked this question. They reassured us that they would attempt to find out whatever information that they could. They didn't really seem to have a lot of details about what was happening, unfortunately, so though we did receive updates, they were somewhat sporadic. 

The pilot, who was actually retiring that day (after that very flight) after decades of service, was also very kind. He left the cockpit and personally went into the airport to check on the matter for all of us as well. The entire crew did an amazing, amazing job despite being faced with terrible circumstances that day, and I commend them for treating us respectfully and being professional.

45 minutes became one hour. One hour became an hour and thirty minutes. We had been sitting on this plane since 11:00 am and had not moved. As aforementioned, at various intervals the flight attendants would get on the loudspeaker and provide what seemed to be promising updates that implied that we would be leaving *any minute now. (That phrase was not explicitly stated, but it seemed to be their perspective.) At approximately five minutes before 1:00 pm we had another announcement, this time by the pilot himself. He stated apologetically that we would all have to get off the plane and be rebooked on another flight. He again apologized for how we had been inconvenienced and assured us that their staff would assist everyone as needed in making a smooth transition to the next flight. 

Understandably, this news did not go over well with me. As I waited my turn to stand and exit the aircraft I replayed the whole scenario in my head in disbelief. When my turn came, I retrieved my carry on bag from the overhead bin and walked down the walkway into the airport, defeated. My tears returned, this time with greater fervor. I felt dejected and saddened. I knew now I'd never make it to the funeral; we were going to be rerouted to a flight at 2:00 pm. Assuming no delays, we would arrive in Dallas at 3:05 pm. The absolute fastest I could be at the funeral home would be 3:35 pm (running at top speed through the airport and rushing to get a taxi already waiting in cue, as I had no time now to rent a car). By then, the funeral would be over, as it was scheduled to last for one hour. I would never get a chance to say goodbye to my friend now, and my promises to the family that I'd be there were now being transformed into lies. 

I had risked my job and spent money I didn't have to spare...all for nothing. 

I shuffled down the walkway following the crowd of passengers. As the hopelessness of the situation overwhelmed me, my tears flowed harder and were accompanied by audible sobs. I just...couldn't believe it. I fly fairly frequently and I know things happen beyond people's control. I didn't blame the pilot, flight crew, or anyone really for the unfortunate circumstances. It was just the worst possible timing, and it was extremely hurtful. 

As an autistic person, I had exercised an enormous amount of patience and restraint throughout this ordeal - more than some passengers who were openly criticizing the flight crew despite the fact that this wasn't their fault. This however, was too much - on top of the intense sadness that I was already feeling over my friend's death. This sudden, unpleasant change was a lot for me to deal with.

As I neared the mid-point of the walkway, I passed a tall, older white male. He noticed me crying and slowly approached me in a non-threatening manner. With a look of genuine concern on his face, he told me he was the pilot and asked if he could help me. I shook my head and cried some more. "I'm going to miss my friend's funeral," I choked out. He sighed sympathetically and held out his arms. I didn't know this man at all, but his concern was reassuring. Even though I don't typically like hugging strangers, I rushed into his arms and buried my face in his side, still weeping. 

We walked together down the rest of the walkway. "Is there some other flight I can take, please?" I begged. "I'll pay anything."

The pilot said to me gently that he would try to find a way to help me. We exited the walkway and entered the airport where he guided me toward an older woman standing near the the gate. He introduced her as his wife. They both urged me to sit for a moment and gestured to a waiting wheelchair. I complied, sitting in the wheelchair while my tears continued to fall. The pilot and his wife leaned over a nearby counter conversing with someone, though I was unaware of what was being discussed. 

Shortly afterward, my wheelchair was suddenly in motion. I wasn't sure what was going on as I whizzed by people in the airport. Not long after, the wheelchair came to a halt. The person pushing it stepped from the behind the wheelchair and stood in front of me. She was a slender white woman. She looked at me and snapped, "What is the problem? What is wrong with you?" in a rude tone of voice. 

I was confused and shocked by the way she was speaking to me. "My friend died," I managed to get out. "I was going to her funeral."

"Well, listen," she snapped again. "You need to get yourself together. This flight crew is NOT going to deal with this. If you are acting like this you will NOT board this plane. They won't keep you on the flight with all of this. You need to get control of yourself."

I sat in the wheelchair looking up at her. I felt as if I'd been slapped across the face. I didn't know this woman nor did I understand why she was being so mean. Nor had I been informed that they'd found another flight for me, though I was grateful. I felt shamed and violated by the way she was looking at me and speaking to me. My tears dried up instantly as I sat there. She continued to look at me. I struggled to find my voice. 

"I wasn't trying to cause any trouble," I stated weakly. "I was crying because I was sad about missing the funeral. Also, I am autistic; I feel things very deeply and sudden changes can be difficult for me."

"Well, I'm sorry that you have that problem," she answered in a condescending tone. "Do you think you can board?"

"Yes," I replied. I stood up shakily from the wheelchair. She approached the staff at the gate and spoke with them. They waved me on, and I walked woodenly onto the walkway and entered the aircraft. I sat down, feeling traumatized. My tears were gone, replaced by a sense of dread.

As I still didn't really know what was going on, I asked the person sitting next to me what time this flight was scheduled to leave. "One o'clock," she answered. I looked at my phone; it was 1:07 pm. I sat back and closed my eyes. Doing the math in my head with regard to arrival time and travel to the actual funeral, I knew I'd be late. However, I would make it. 

I was relieved - and yet still full of anxiety. The person's tone, words, and facial expression lingered in my mind. I desperately needed time to get myself emotionally prepared for the funeral, to deal with not only the sadness but also to regulate myself mentally after the emotional roller coaster I'd just endured with the very real threat of missing the entire funeral. But I could do none of that because I felt stricken and hurt by the way I'd been treated. I did not deserve to be treated so shabbily. 

Long story short, I did attend the funeral (although late). However, the whole experience prior to the flight took its toll. I knew I was not in any place psychologically to get in a vehicle and drive over four hours back home. My hands were shaking and I felt lightheaded and weak. I ended up having to purchase another one-way ticket from Southwest that day - this time to fly me back to Houston. (The staff on that flight were nice and I am thankful for them.) I also had to pay for an uber to take me back home. I would have had none of those expenses had I not been treated in such an uncaring, unprofessional, ableist manner by this staff person. 

The majority of the Southwest Airlines staff that I encountered that day were professional and nice not only to me, but to other passengers. I am not going to judge an entire airline by the poor actions of one individual. However, the way she acted was uncalled for and needs to be addressed. 

Human beings are allowed to cry, including patrons of Southwest Airlines. They are allowed to feel sad. ESPECIALLY when the sadness is a direct response to an action that was caused by Southwest Airlines. I was not disrupting anyone, creating a safety hazard, being violent, disrespecting anyone, or impeding anyone's ability to do their job. I was crying because after I had waited patiently for a flight that I paid for to depart, I was being rewarded by being re-routed to a flight that would have caused me to miss the funeral. That is not an unreasonable reaction - whether or not one is autistic. 

Due to the quick thinking and influence of that wonderful pilot, I was rushed onto the 1:00 pm. But that was not the original plan - and the other passengers on the canceled flight were not as fortunate. I had no way of knowing that this amazing gentleman was going to pull some strings for me, so I think it is completely understandable that I was crying over being stuck on the 2:00 pm flight. Frankly, it took a great deal of restraint that all I was doing was crying, as the whole situation was triggering and I could feel a meltdown and/or an anxiety attack looming that I fought with all my might to suppress. Yet I was being treated as if I was some out-of-control drama queen who was potentially risking the flight and its crew?!??

All types of people fly on Southwest. People who are non-disabled as well as people who are disabled. All of those people deserve to be treated with respect. I did not ask for nor expect any special treatment - though disabled passengers should be able to access reasonable accommodations when they fly if needed. What I did, and do expect, as a paying customer, is to be treated with respect and dignity. I did not deserve to be treated like a piece of trash. 

She had NO right to snap at me. She had NO right to treat me in such a condescending manner. She had NO right to speak to me the way that she did. She had NO right to call me a "problem." For being autistic is a part of who I am just like being a woman, being a black person, being a Christian, being a parent, etc. It is not my "problem." It's how my brain works. Calling it "that problem" is calling ME a problem. Her statement was inappropriate, discriminatory, and insulting.

I didn't disclose that I am autistic to her for her to belittle me. I shared it as additional information for her to understand why I was sad, even though I think a non-autistic person might be similarly saddened under the same circumstances. I mentioned it to her for her to try to have some type of context as to why this whole situation with the lengthy delay and the near-missed funeral was especially hard on me individually, as an autistic person. But none of that occurred. She never apologized for how she acted nor did she begin to act differently once she knew. I fear the next autistic child or adult to board a Southwest Airlines flight that has to encounter her, as she seemingly has no understanding of not respect for autistic people - or people at all, frankly. 

Again, I am enormously grateful for the many Southwest Airlines staff who demonstrated that they have respect for passengers and who were shining examples of customer service. Unfortunately, the actions of that one individual imbrue the name and image of Southwest Airlines. 

I am an autistic person, and I matter. My money matters too. I should be treated as such. I didn't deserve to be chastised and insulted. I shouldn't have had to waste money that I don't have to spend as a result of the actions of your staff. It is my hope that you address this so that others will not have to be subjected to the poor customer service and ableism I had to endure that day. 




  1. Why is it that neurotypical people often seem to think that they are being therapeutic towards autistic people when they are condescending towards us? Because that is what seems to have happened. I bet the flight attendant confused "autistic" with "spoiled" in her prejudiced way, and thought that maybe if she was condescending to you, you'd learn to behave. Doesn't she realize that that, in a way, is a form of infantilization and is totally uncalled for? Oh wait, she doesn't, any more than my former special ed teachers did. Or maybe she does and does it anyway and is too prejudiced not to do it, because she feels ass though autistic people don't deserve accommodations, which she thinks of as "special treatment", as so many ableist people are wont to do.

  2. I don't blame you for having been upset, I agree that there are tons of non-autistic people who would have been crying in the exact same kind of circumstances. But no matter why you were crying, she had no right to treat you that way. I just don't understand why some people seem to believe that all tears are a form of deliberate manipulation or something. How incredibly insulting and just wrong.

    I'm glad the pilot and other people were so positive, though sorry that one jerk still treated you wrongly. I hope you get a positive response from Southwest Airlines, good luck with this.

  3. I wonder if your experience would have been radically different had you not sat in a wheelchair. As a wheelchair user and frequent flyer airlines are openly hostile to passengers that use wheelchairs. Yes, some good people work in the air line industry but 80% of the time employees are point blank rude.

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