Stranded by airline, a disabled D.C. activist crawled off his flight. But the humiliation was far from over.
Until finally, he could wait no longer. As stunned flight attendants looked on, 29-year-old Neal fell to the floor and proceeded to drag himself roughly 50 feet to the airplane’s door, where his own wheelchair was waiting for him.
“The craziest thing was that while that was happening, the attendants just stared. They just couldn’t believe I was doing that. It just seemed so unfathomable to them,” Neal told The Washington Post. “By the time they came to their senses I was already out of the plane.”
By now, you might have heard of D’Arcee Neal. His Oct. 20 flight made international news. “Outrage as man with cerebral palsy was forced to crawl off plane,” ran one headline in the U.K. “Severely disabled man on plane crawls down aisle,” read another. And when United Airlines promptly issued an apology and a check, Neal appeared to be on his way to joining the long list of people who have been abused and then paid by the airline industry.
What you probably haven’t heard, however, is what happened afterward: the ignorance, the Internet comments, the wild accusations and the humiliation of crawling on one’s hands in public — relived over and over online.
“There is a contingent of the Internet thinks that I’m faking or I’m opportunistic and I just want to get paid,” Neal said. “Somebody even said that I was doing it to raise the profile of Black Lives Matter, which I was really offended by.”
The first thing you should know about Neal is that his life has been pretty darn tough. The D.C. native is African American, openly gay and disabled — a triple minority.
“I was born with cerebral palsy,” he told The Post in a telephone interview Tuesday night, recounting how he wasn’t allowed to pursue acting in college because the university theater wasn’t wheelchair accessible, and how his expensive wheelchair was stolen last year while he watched after a friend’s apartment. “I deal with all kinds of craziness that able-bodied people just have no clue about.”
But the second thing you should know about him is that he definitely doesn’t want to be pitied.
“I’m an activist, a storyteller, I perform with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington [D.C.].,” he said. “I just got done doing a production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at the Arlington Players as the plant. We had a five-star review.”
“I do things professionally in my life. And yes, I have a cerebral palsy. And yes, I use a wheelchair. But it doesn’t make me any less of a person. It doesn’t make me any less of a citizen. People around the city are just like, ‘Oh,’ when they see you. The bar is lowered a little bit. And that is infuriating. I’m almost 30 years old. I pay my taxes. And they look at you like, ‘I’m just really sorry. I’m sorry that that is your life.’ Well, I’m sorry you feel like that.”
His attitude has propelled him to London for graduate school and into a career advocating for better treatment of the disabled.
In fact, last week’s incident occurred as Neal was returning from a work trip to San Francisco where, as an employee of United Cerebral Palsy, he met with Uber executives to discuss improving the “ride-sharing” service for people with disabilities. (Since then, Neal has started a job with the U.S. Department of the Interior.)
But it was another company that needed his advice, it seems.
Neal’s return trip to D.C. began badly. Instead of asking him to board first, as is airline policy, a United gate agent in San Francisco forgot and seated the rest of the plane, he said. As a result, it was nearly impossible for Neal to take his seat, even with the help of the special, narrow-aisle wheelchair. (His own chair is too wide for the aisles and was stored during the flight.)
It was disembarking, however, that would prove disastrous.
His plane touched down at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 20. First, Neal waited as his fellow passengers streamed off the aircraft. Then he waited for a United employee or contractor to come and help him exit the plane as he had entered: on the narrow-aisle wheelchair.
But as the delay dragged on, and Neal sat on the plane with only a few flight attendants, his patience began to wear thin.
“When the staff didn’t show up, I asked the flight attendant what was going,” he said. “They were just doing their job, and they told me, ‘Just stay here. Just wait. I’m sure he’ll be here in a few minutes.’”
After about 35 minutes, Neal asked again if someone was on the way with a wheelchair, repeating that he really needed to use the restroom in the airport. “He asked me why I couldn’t use the bathroom on the plane,” Neal told The Post. “But I can’t even get up to the toilet bowl” in the tiny airplane lavatories.
After about 45 minutes, Neal had had enough. When the flight attendant told him his own wheelchair was waiting for him just off the plane, Neal decided it was time to go it alone.
“Honestly, I expected the flight attendants [to help me] once they saw that I have a disability, once they knew that I had to use the bathroom,” he said. “The next words out of their mouths should have been: ‘How can we assist you? What can we do to make that possible?’
“I’m not going to use the airplane bathroom when a perfectly acceptable [wheelchair accessible] bathroom was 10 feet from the door to the terminal. If you could just let me off this plane, then I could go to the bathroom the regular way instead of you trying to cram me into this closet.
“So at that point I got out of my chair and onto the floor and started crawling up the aisle,” he recalled. “One of the flight attendants turned around and was like, ‘Oh, you can’t be serious.'”
Neal crawled roughly 50 feet on his elbows from his seat in 11 F to the door of the plane and then onto the jet bridge, where his wheelchair had been left for him. Some of the flight attendants were stunned. One, however, had the presence of mind to bring Neal’s bag and help him up the steep jet bridge to the terminal.
Neal was angry, but he was also used to it.
“This is the third or fourth time this has happened” with United, he claimed. Neal said he had missed several connecting flights because of similar delays in receiving wheelchair assistance, but he had never resorted to crawling off the plane — until now.
“I mean, it’s humiliating,” he told NBC Washington. “No one should have to do what I did.”
Still, he didn’t want to make an issue out of it.
“I went to the bathroom and went home,” he told The Post. “I didn’t say anything to anybody. I wasn’t being rude or anything. I was just tired and frustrated and it was annoying.”
Neal arrived home just before midnight, fell asleep and then headed to work the next morning as if nothing happened. When he came home that evening, however, he got a call from United.
Someone had complained about the incident — but it wasn’t Neal. It was one of the flight attendants who felt Neal had been neglected.
Now a United representative was telling him that the airline had “dropped the ball,” the situation was “completely unacceptable” and that the employee responsible had been suspended, according to Neal.
Those claims generally match a statement United sent to CNN on Tuesday.
“As customers began to exit the aircraft, we made a mistake and told the agent with the aisle chair that it was no longer needed, and it was removed from the area,” the airline said. “When we realized our error — that Mr. Neal was onboard and needed the aisle chair — we arranged to have it brought back, but it arrived too late.”
“We’ve apologized to him for that delay,” United told the Los Angeles Times. “We hope that all of our customers understand that this situation doesn’t reflect the level of service we provide to customers with disabilities each day.”
Neal accepted the airline’s apology, along with $300 in compensation.
But when his story hit the media, Neal was baffled to see commenters blaming him for the episode. Some said he was engaged in a publicity stunt. Many suggested he was out for money.
“This person may wanted to get attention for his agenda!” wrote one person, who also insinuated that Neal lied about what happened.
“How much money are you looking for,” wrote another. “How funny you need to go to the bathroom when plane lands and everyone is looking to run off the plane.” (Note that Neal insists he waited until the plane was empty.)
Others tried to twist Neal’s disability into some modern-day, narcissistic ploy for attention or — most bizarrely of all — into a sense of entitlement, even privilege.
“How long did he have to wait? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Half an hour?” one commenter wrote. “We all have to wait for things it’s what makes us equal. So he just happened to be returning from a speaking engagement about accessible transportation. Isn’t that just ironic. I’m willing to bet he has the Me-first attitude! I’m more valuable than you! Can’t you see that I’m special!”
“Why is the airline responsible for helping him to and from the plane or bathroom? He knew he was disabled BEFORE he got on the plane. Why did he not have a nursing assistant with him to help him in such matters or a family member?” another wrote. “In today’s world, we must plan ahead and accordingly to our needs. We should not expect others to provide for our needs.”
Most people supported Neal. But for him, the accusations, however absurd, still hurt.
“How could you make this story into a negative?” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong, especially when United openly admitted that this was all them. They have already issued an apology and a statement and the whole nine [yards].”
Many of the negative comments displayed a profound ignorance not only of American law — such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — but also of what it’s like to be disabled. One woman accused Neal of faking his disability because she mistakenly thought that people with cerebral palsy are completely paralyzed, at which point Neal took to the comments to explain the disability that had already been laid bare for the public.
But the most absurd allegation was that Neal was somehow trying to drum up support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The fact that I just happen to be black and disabled is enough for people to believe that I’m trying to raise the profiles of Black Lives Matter?” he said in disbelief. “Don’t get me wrong, black lives do matter … but that doesn’t have anything to do with what was going on [on the airplane]. For them to jump to that conclusion, it just felt like, what? The internet is just wildly out of control with their theories.”
Neal said he hasn’t sought out media attention or money, although he is still weighing his legal options. He also pointed out that he wasn’t the one to complain.
He does hope some good can come from the episode, however.
“I understand that the airline made an apology and I am grateful for that,” he said. “I am also grateful that this [United contractor] was suspended, because he should have been.
“But this takes place at the heart of a much larger issue about the airline industry and how they treat people and the lack of respect they give to disabled American citizens, who they charge full price.”