It's been more than a week since a gay man with cerebral palsy was left to drag himself off a United Airlines flight when staff failed to bring him an aisle-size wheelchair to disembark, but the backlash over his humiliating treatment continues.
D'Arcee Neal was returning to his home in Washington, D.C., October 20 — ironically, he says, from a conference on accessibility in travel for disabled people hosted in San Francisco. Neal currently works for the U.S. Department of Interior and is a baritone in the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, according to his Facebook profile.
Unable to relieve himself in the lavatories on-board during the cross-country flight, Neal needed to use the restroom upon landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, reports Washington TV station WRC, which broke the story.
Neal waited for the plane to empty, then waited some more, expecting a United agent or contractor to meet him at his seat with a small wheelchair that would bring him from his seat in the middle of the plane to his personal wheelchair at the front of the aircraft.
But while Neal sat in his seat for an additional 45 minutes, that aisle-size wheelchair never came. The Washington Post powerfully described what happened next:
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."
The Post reports that Neal received a $300 check from United Airlines, which apologized for the "delay" he experienced and issued various statements to media claiming the error resulted from a miscommunication that "doesn't reflect the level of service we provide to customers with disabilities each day." The United contractor who was supposed to help Neal off the plane has been suspended, according to the Post.
Neal told the newspaper he's been subjected to significant delays (including missed connecting flights) when attempting to deplane at least three times in the past, but this marked the first time he has resorted to crawling up the aisle on his hands.
Stressing that he didn't want to turn the experience he called "humiliating" into a media frenzy, Neal did not file a complaint with United. But one of the flight attendants who witnessed Neal's desperation did, informing superiors that Neal had been mistreated.
After his story was picked up by local and national outlets, Neal then endured an onslaught of comments alleging that he had staged the incident in an effort to get attention or money, or exert some sort of privilege.
The Post reports:
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.”
Watch WRC TV's initial report on Neal's case below.