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Challenge: Traveling with Kids

Heartbroken at the airport, are medical exemptions still a thing?

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On St.Partick’s Day, I got up at 3:00 a.m. had our bags packed the night before, ready for a trip with my baby girl to visit family in Montana. I filled a carry-on bag with new toys, snacks, hand sanitizer, charged headphones, and of course, our masks.

That morning I woke up our two-year-old Nora, she meet me with a doe eyed look but was in good spirits.

I changed her into a cute black shirt with toile on the bottom and slipped on a black hoodie paired with my favorite black chucks.

We made the hour drive to the Mesa Gateway Airport. I unbuckled her car seat, slipped it into the giant red car seat bag, got our rolling bag, and our daughter bounced her way into the airport.

As we reached the counter, they started to check us in. The clerk behind the counter asked if I had a mask for my daughter. I said “yes,” but she is medically exempt because she has autism. Often I find using this phrase is more understood by the general public than other more accepted terminology used by the autistic community.

The clerk then said, “there is no longer federal exemption.” A second clerk came over. I handed them the paperwork I brought regarding her diagnosis, and they called someone on the phone to describe my paperwork. The clerk hung up, and I asked what they had said. She said there are no longer federal exemptions and would like to rebook my ticket.

Rebook my ticket? I was in shock at this point. Why would I rebook my ticket? She wouldn’t be able to fly in two weeks, three weeks, or a month with a mask.

My daughter turned two years old in December, and it is the middle of March. So if she were just three months younger, she would have been able to fly?

I told them I would have to cancel my trip, the clerk then said I would need to go to the end counter to cancel.

Once I got to the end counter, I asked for paperwork saying that they would not allow my daughter to fly because of her disability. That they could not discriminate against my daughter because of her disability. They then told me that they could not help me and would need to call the customer service line to cancel.

I was heartbroken. I walked out of the airport crying holding my daughter’s hand and carrying all my bags.

Earlier in the week, I had read a story titled, Spirit" class="redactor-linkify-object"> Airlines kicks 4-year-old boy with autism off flight not wearing a mask.

This Arkansas family, sharing the same heartbreak as their 4-year-old boy, who’s non-verbal and also autistic, was not allowed to return home from Las Vegas. The family flew to Las Vegas no problem, but they were not allowed to fly on the return home because the young boy couldn’t wear a mask.

The Mother explaining “He has a disability. It’s protected by the American’s with Disability Act.” The airline responding with, “No, no, no, Autism is not a disability, He has to wear a mask, or he has to get off the plane.”

Spirit also said, "Our existing policy does not provide for medical exemptions, regardless of diagnosis. Our team members explained this to a family traveling today but never questioned anyone's medical status in the process.”

After returning home I read a second news article title, Southwest" class="redactor-linkify-object"> turns family away after daughter with autism couldn’t weat a mask.

This article stating that the family traveled in February for their daughter’s therapy on Hawaiian Airlines and did not have an issue. But when they flew with Southwest, a boarding agent stopped the family asking about a mask.

<The agent, “unfortunately, we cannot get you into the plane because there’s a regulation,” said Remolacio.

Remolacio said she showed the agent the doctor’s note and tried to put a mask on her daughter. When her daughter refused to wear the mask, they were turned away.

While we regret any inconvenience this family experienced while traveling, federal law requires each person, two years of age and older, to wear a mask at all times throughout the flight, including during boarding and deplaning,” a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said in a statement.”

In January of 2021, there was a Presidential order issued with stricter guidelines for masks. The order asking the CDC to implement guidelines for the new laws.

The CDC issued an order on January 29, 2021, with new requirements to fly.

On page 4 of this order it clearly says “this order exempts the following categories persons.

A child under the age of 2;

A person with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, because of a disability as defined by the Americans with Disability Act (42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.)

A person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations."

There is a footnote saying this in regards to transportation specifically, "Operators of conveyances or transportation hubs may impose requirements, or conditions for carriage, on persons requesting an exemption from the requirements to wear a mask, including medical consultation by a third party, medical documentation by a licensed medical provider, and/or other information as determined by the operator, as well as require evidence that the person does not have COVID-19 such as a negative result from a SARS-CoV-2 viral test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19...Operators may also impose additional protective measures that improve the ability of a person eligible for exemption to maintain social distance (separation from others by 6 feet), such as scheduling travel at less crowded times or on less crowded conveyances, or seating or otherwise situating the individual in a less crowded section of the conveyance or transportation hub. Operators may further require that persons seeking exemption from the requirement to wear a mask request an accommodation in advance."

As I read over the new regulations, my heart sank even more. From what I am reading here, my beautiful sweet two-year-old should not have been denied access to fly.

I wish I had done more to advocate for her. I wish these other families didn’t have to go through the same experience as us. It is not that exemptions do not exist at this time, from what I am finding. It is that they can impose additional steps for us to confirm our children are exempt.

There are laws and regulations in place to protect people and my children from discrimination. I am not sure if I am missing something out there saying that airlines can exclude us from flying based on my daughter’s disability. Based on the two other airlines' changes after these stories hit the news, I believe I am reading this new regulation right.

I would have gladly put a mask on my daughter if she could wear one. We have spent the last year cautious in our action to help as much as we could to protect ourselves and others from this virus.

As I walked out of the airport on Wednesday holding my little girl's hand, I was stuck with the hard fact that this won’t be the last time we are met with misunderstanding. This won’t be the last time my heart will sink as I reach the car. I will make a promise to my children that even though my heartbreak, I will continue to advocate for them.

Even through my own tears I will do my best to make it clear that they will not just be dismissed.

I am grateful it was my daughter with me on Wednesday as she is still too young to take in that situation's gravity. If it had been my son, who is starting to understand things that we prepare him for, there might have been a louder, more proclaimed exit from the airport. He would not have understood after we prepared him to fly something he loves to do that we were heading back to the car to go home. He might have picked up on my energy as the tears hit my cheek.

To Allegiant airlines and all airlines, please clarify what steps you want our families to go through to fly. I don’t want another family to have to walk into an airport and be met with simply “no.” No to you and your family. There are no exceptions for something out of your control.

We want to be able to participate in things offered to others and deserve the right to do so.


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