D’Arcee Neal had just spend five hours on a plane, flying from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and he calmly waited for his fellow passengers to exit the plane. He expected it would take around 15 minutes, as it usually does, for the plane to empty.
Neal’s cerebral palsy renders him unable to walk, but luckily, he owns a specially-built wheelchair that is extra-narrow in order to fit through the aisle of an airplane.
Because Neal is also a considerate person and knows that airplanes never have enough room, he let the flight attendants move the wheelchair to the end of the plane; on this occasion, he assumed that they would bring it back upon landing.
Except they didn’t. And Neal had to use the restroom, but was unable to do so for over five hours since the plane had no wheelchair-friendly toilets. He kept asking the attendants to help him exit the plane, according to CNN, but was told to wait.
“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. By the time they came to their senses I was already out of the plane.”
Neal explained to the Washington Post in a phone interview that many people don’t understand how heavily he relies on his wheelchair to get around. In fact, he’s dealt with this problem in the past; in an NBC Washington article dated June 26, 2014, Neal talked about how lost he was without his wheelchair after the custom-built wheelchair was stolen.
“I can’t go anywhere. I need a wheelchair to be able to do anything,” Neal said. “Rationale says if you see a wheelchair unoccupied at any time in any given place, somebody near by needs it. It’s just that simple. If it doesn’t belong to you, you don’t touch it.”
“The retail value [of the stolen wheelchair] is about $5,000. It has to be custom-built and fit your body… It’s not a phone, or bicycle. It’s like someone literally took the bones out of your legs.”
“I have flown millions of miles over the years and have had the same situation happen to me several times,” says Rick Cooper, Sales Manager, Mobility Healthcare. “You have to be patient and persistent in asking the flight attendant to please contact the people that help board people with disabilities onto the plane. Sometimes the communication between airports regarding disabled people being on a certain flight is not properly passed onto the final destination, thus causing this situation to occur. Once, I flew into Dallas from Grand Rapids, MI and my wheelchair ended up in Chicago. That is a little worse than having your bag go missing.”
As TIME reported, United Airlines has since issued an apology to Neal and offered him $300 as “compensation” for the humiliation. Perhaps allowing him to access his own wheelchair would have been a smarter solution.