Fly, Johnnie, Fly

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Last week Chris Meehan from CRC Communications and I interviewed Johnnie Tuitel (sounds like “title”) for a story about his recent misadventure with US Airways. You may have read or heard the worldwide coverage about this event. They picked the wrong man to do this to, praise God!

Johnnie is a believer and a member of a CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan; he did not look for revenge. In fact, he waited three and a half weeks before responding. But he decided that he needed to respond in an appropriate way. He wrote a news release and sent it to a local TV station in Grand Rapids. The news spread fast and furious. Just a few days after Johnnie sent the release, he flew to New York for television interviews for the broadcast networks.

I praise God that Johnnie spoke up. The injustice of his story touches people’s hearts. It reminds all of us to treat one another with dignity and respect. Johnnie said that he’s not doing it first for himself, but for others who live with disabilities. “How about the young woman who gets an engineering degree and needs to fly to Texas for a job interview? If the flight crew sees her wheelchair and tells her that she may not fly, will she get the job? No way.”

After the incident made the news cycle, Johnnie said that what touched him most were the email messages he received from people who had similar indignities inflicted on them. For example, a mother wrote to him that when she and her daughter boarded a flight, they heard one flight attendant say to the other, “Watch out for the retard; she might freak when we take off.”

I told Johnnie that sometimes I get really frustrated by people’s lack of empathy and understanding when it comes to people with disabilities. They show it by their actions and their words. Johnnie reassured me that in his experience, most people need to be educated about how to handle situations appropriately, and he said that his incident with US Airways is one such opportunity to do that.

Besides the huge amount of new awareness generated by this incident, organizations are taking specific action to increase knowledge about the rights of people with disabilities. For example, the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, is sponsoring a webinar next month, “Flying with Wheelchairs: Knowing Your Rights & Responsibilities at 32,000 Feet.”

There’s a scene in the movie, Forrest Gump, in which Forrest begins running while wearing his leg braces. Some bullies begin to chase him in their pickup truck. Forrest’s friend, Jenny, calls out, “Run, Forrest, Run.” Miraculously, Forrest runs faster and faster. He outpaces the pickup and runs right out of his braces. It’s a powerful scene, like David defeating Goliath, but in the movie he doesn’t kill them, he outruns them.

I don’t think that the flight crew of that US Airways flight set out to bully Johnnie. I pray, though, that this incident will be another step toward people with disabilities outrunning the prejudices that they face daily. Fly, Johnnie, fly.

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