Aug. 16,2012, 2012 -- A teenager with autism, flying on American Airlines, was nearly forced to turn off the iPad she uses to communicate.
Carly Fleischmann, who has been profiled on ABC News, was flying from Los Angeles to her home in Toronto on Aug. 10 when she was approached by a flight attendant who told her she needed to turn off her iPad during takeoff. The trouble is, if Fleischmann can't use her iPad, she can't communicate. Because of autism, she cannot speak.
Howard Dalal, Fleischmann's aide and lead therapist, was with Fleischmann on the flight. He told ABC News Fleischmann suffers from Oral Motor Apraxia, which means her thoughts are clear in her mind, but they get jumbled on the way to her mouth. She lacks the fine motor skills to use a pen, and only knows a little sign language. She types with one finger.
In an email, Fleischmann told ABC News, "I use the iPad like a prosthetic limb and not as a toy. I think that is what is blinding people on this issue."
Because the iPad is Carly's voice, it is paramount that she be able to use it, Dalal said. "If she was about to have a seizure, there is no way she could tell me without her iPad," he said.
In airplane mode, Fleischmann's iPad is fully operational for her communication needs. Dalal said that in Fleischmann's opinion, forcing her to turn off her iPad is akin to handcuffing a deaf person's hands to their chair.
In an emailed statement to ABC News, American Airlines said, "Our flight attendants are responsible for following U.S. Department of Transportation regulations on the accommodation of customers with disabilities. American's electronic device policy is designed to be in full compliance with the DOT. Likewise, Federal safety rules require the stowage of personal items during take-off and landing and prohibit the use of electronic devices at the same periods. We regret any discomfort Carly felt or difficulty this may cause customers."
The flight attendant who approached Fleischmann was eventually overruled by the pilot, who said Fleischmann could leave her iPad on. Dalal said they met up with the pilot again at customs in Toronto, and he told Dalal and Fleischmann that the policy was "ridiculous." Further, Dalal said that the pilot said the pilots themselves use iPads during takeoff and landing.
"There is virtually no evidence that any consumer electronics can or have had any deleterious effect on the aircraft systems, and least of all would be an iPad in airplane mode," said John Nance, ABC News aviation consultant. "The slavish 'we're just following orders' response of airline personnel in the face of unusual challenges is sad at best, and reprehensible at worst."
Dalal, at Fleischmann's request, set the timer on her iPad to see, if she had in fact been forced to turn it off, how long she would have been unable to communicate. The time: 50 minutes.
Dalal said that he and Fleischmann have never had a problem using her iPad on a flight before. In fact, on their way to Los Angeles, they flew on American Airlines and there was no issue.
Fleischmann posted her first complaint to American Airlines on Facebook. Her message reads, in part:
"I use my iPad during security to ask for further instructions, I use my iPad well [sic] waiting for my airplane and ask the reception people when the flights going to take off, I use my iPad on the airplane to tell them if there's something wrong with my seat or my seatbelt or with the airplane. I am begging you as a active passenger on your flights to change your policy when it comes to dealing with people with autism and other special needs."
In her email to ABC News, Fleischmann wrote she has reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Human Rights Commission to see if they can sit down together to change this policy. They ". . . are eager to sit down. My goal is to get American Airlines support," she wrote.
In an email exchange with American Airlines dated Aug. 16 that Fleischmann forwarded to ABC News, a customer service representative said the airline is reviewing the situation and waiting to hear back from the flight crew, but that because of travel schedules, it may take several weeks. Fleischmann has asked to speak to someone in the corporate office, someone "higher up than a customer service representative," in order to facilitate the meeting, but said she has not yet been sent a name.
This is far from the first time that the issue of personal electronic devices on airplanes has come up, but it may be the first time it has come up in connection with a person with a disability that prohibits them from speaking without it. In March, the FAA said it aimed to bring together "key stakeholders" to have a discussion about personal electronic devices in flight.
Fleischmann and her father published the book "Carly's Voice: Breaking Through Autism" earlier this year.