Last month, Alyssa Sadler traveled with her children from Houston to Midland, Texas on a Southwest Airlines flight. Her 3-year-old son, who has autism and cannot wear a mask due to his sensory processing disorder, was permitted to fly without a mask under Southwest’s policy exception for disabled flyers, which was in effect at the time.

A few days after their flight, Southwest Airlines became one of the first airlines to ban disabled passengers who cannot wear face masks. In a statement, the airline said that it would “temporarily refuse to transport any passenger who is unable to wear a mask even if the Customer has a verifiable medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask.​” The only exception, it said, were for children two years and younger.

On Monday, when Alyssa and her family attempted to fly back to Houston, the airline enforced its new face covering policy against their son, requiring him to wear a mask. But, when the 3-year-old boy began screaming and reacting negatively to the mask on his face, a symptom of his sensory processing disorder, Southwest taxied back to the gate and the family was removed from the aircraft. The following report from KPRC Houston documents how the incident unfolded.

Southwest refunded their money, but wrote up the boy for refusing to comply with the face mask policy and left it up to the family to find an alternate way home at their own expense. The distance between Midland and Houston is about 500 miles, a journey that takes less than 90 minutes by airplane, but up to 8 hours in a car. KPRC reports that a family member will drive the family home from Midland later this week.

In reflecting on the incident, Alyssa posted the following on Facebook:

Yesterday my 3 year old Autistic Son was removed from plane for not wearing a mask, even though we had a medical exemption note from his Doctor. The staff was not compassionate towards the situation. I hope we can use this experience to spread awareness for children with disabilities.

Wheelchair Travel has been at the forefront of advocacy for people who cannot wear masks as a result of a disability because we object to the exclusion of disabled people from society. As I have stated previously, Wheelchair Travel believes face mask policies that deny disabled people an exception without an individual risk assessment violate the Air Carrier Access Act. Any disabled person who has been refused travel due to an airline’s face mask policies should file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

I strongly urge the Department of Transportation to issue clear guidance to airlines and to the public about face mask policies and air travel for disabled people. The DOT’s continued silence has permitted 7 of the 10 largest airlines to discriminate against disabled people, jeopardizing their basic civil rights and causing emotional, physical and economic harm. Enough is enough.

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