Flying with a Disability

Getting on an airplane equals anxiety for a lot of us. Taking kids with us only adds to the stress. However, flying with a child who has a disability can be a huge challenge. Many children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy don’t have the trunk support to hold themselves upright. The CARES harness (Child Aviation Restraint System) was designed to alleviate this problem. However, it is only approved for children who weight 22-44 pounds. For children and adults over 44 pounds this has meant using other means of transportation. Sometimes, however, flying is the only option and just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be allowed the freedom to travel the world.

Joseph Ottenbreit watched this happen to his daughter who has cerebral palsy. At age 15 and weighing 73 pounds, Avery was asked to debark from an airplane before takeoff because the flight attendants believed her butterfly harness would interfere with safety regulations. Ottenbreit, not wanting to see his daughter grounded for life, took matters into his own hands and won exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) disability laws for Avery. Basically, the CARES harness is not approved for those over 44 pounds because they may cause injury to the person seated behind the person with the disability in the event of an accident. So, the FAA says Avery can fly as long as no one is seated directly behind her. That may mean always being seated in the last row, but at least Avery can fly. The exemption is good until March of 2011 when the Ottenbreits will have to file for an exemption again.

The FAA makes it clear that their safety laws regarding people with disabilities are still very much in effect. However, anyone can apply for exemption. The process is long and daunting as you must apply at least 120 days in advance and there is a great deal of paper work and red tape. But if you are willing, you can win exemption just as the Ottenbreits did and open up the skies to your child.

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About Nancy

I am a freelance writer focused on parenting children with special needs. My articles have been featured in numerous parenting publications and on I am the former editor and publisher of Vermont HomeStyle Magazine. I am a wife and mom to a two daughters, one with cystic fibrosis and one who is a carrier for cystic fibrosis.