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How a disabled traveler can prevent a sexual assault on a plane

Caretaker with senior woman in a wheelchair at the airport.
If your mobility is impaired or you’re dealing with a disability, think through how you will summon help in case of a sexual assault on a plane.
(Suwinai Sukanant / Alamy Stock Photo)

Flight attendants call it “#MeToo in the Air,” the incidents of sexual assault and harassment that occur at 30,000 feet.

Law enforcement calls it a growing problem, as increasing numbers of passengers come forward to report these crimes.

When egregious cases make the news, the details are cringe-worthy. In November a man on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Salt Lake City ended his trip in handcuffs.

Authorities say he groped the woman seated next to him. The pilot diverted the plane to Tulsa, Okla., where the man was arrested and later charged with public intoxication and abusive sexual conduct.

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If you’ve been there — trapped on a cramped flight next to someone who’s had too many drinks or doesn’t observe personal space boundaries, you know it’s uncomfortable, but when these situations turn dangerous, then what?

As a person with a disability, I worry about how I would defend and protect myself. I consider my reality: I use a wheelchair for mobility, so once seated on the plane, I can’t easily maneuver out of harm’s way. I’m also a little person and have short arms, so reaching the flight attendant call button above my seat is impossible.

I consider other realities as well: people who are nonverbal, suffer from dementia, those who have limited intellectual function — really, anyone who may not be able to give consent, rebuff a predator or signal for help.

For us and other travelers with physical limitations, the issue of how to deal with threats from other passengers is rarely discussed, but it should be.

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Such crimes are trending, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has jurisdiction over in-flight crimes. In 2017, the FBI opened 63 investigations involving sexual assaults on aircraft; that increased to 84 in 2018. For the 2019 year ending Sept. 30, that number jumped to 119.

“We believe awareness and increased reporting may have contributed to the increased numbers,” FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller wrote in an email. “Obviously, we believe the crime is underreported and encourage anyone who believes they have been victimized to come forward.”

The problem is so widespread that the Department of Transportation launched a special task force to develop strategies to address it.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to be sitting ducks.

I asked the FBI’s leading expert on the matter for advice and the message is clear: If you experience unwanted touching or sexual harassment in-flight, or witness someone being preyed upon, do whatever it takes to draw attention to it.

“These are [crimes] done in private,” said special agent David Gates, who leads the FBI’s office based at LAX and has seen hundreds of such situations play out. “A lot of suspects don’t want an audience,” said Gates.

The best course of action is to alert someone immediately.

If you don’t want to blurt out “This person is touching me!” you could say to the person seated across the aisle from you, “I am unable to get out of my seat. Would you please get a flight attendant for me?”

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Asking for help may feel awkward, but it’s your best defense.

“There is a problem that needs to be addressed and that’s going to fix it faster than sitting in your seat for an hour and taking it. Get people working for you on that plane,” Gates said.

Once a flight attendant is aware, he or she can step in and take charge. They are trained to keep peace and can put distance between you and the handsy passenger next to you.

If they try to move you but your disability makes that hard, insist that the offending passenger be moved. Raise a stink if you have to.

“You have no idea how many people said they didn’t want to make a scene,” Gates said. “It’s better to be seen as the problem person than to be the victim. You’ve got to stick up for yourself.”

Ask the crew to alert law enforcement. This step is important.

Federal agents will meet the plane at the gate, interview witnesses and determine whether a crime has been committed.

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“Doesn’t matter if it’s over the Pacific Ocean, over the polar ice caps or over Iowa, it’s my team’s job to do an investigation,” Gates said. “We take this incredibly seriously. Disabilities or not, this should not happen to anyone.”

More safety tips:

• About 90% percent of crimes that happen onboard aircrafts involve alcohol or alcohol and prescription medication, according to the FBI. In either case, substances can lower inhibitions — in predators and victims. Speak up if you sense an issue.

• Stay alert on the plane. “Take a nap, have a drink but don’t get into a position where you can’t wake yourself up,” Gates said.

• Discourage unwanted advances right away. Predators will often start with seemingly innocent touches — a hand on your knee or a brush across your hand. Experts say this is to gauge whether you are awake or alert. Turn to the person and say assertively, “Don’t do that” to establish a clear personal boundary.

• If you are being assaulted, forget about being polite. Scream, call for help, make noise by clapping your hands, banging an object on the tray table or kicking the seat in front of you. Act as though your well-being depends on this because, as victims know, it may.


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