Americans have a love-hate relationship with the internet and social media. Threads that can bind a community by connecting and informing people, they also have great potential to do harm by spreading “fake news” and hate.
But two recent local stories that are circling the globe demonstrate their positive power if used by well-intentioned people trying to do good.
Through Facebook posts, Twitter and traditional news reports, we learned earlier this month about United Airlines’ disgraceful treatment of Tyler Schilhabel, who as a promising teenage athlete was left paralyzed from the chest down by an accident.
Schilhabel is not a quitter. Despite all odds and with the encouragement of family, coaches and others, Schilhabel traded his football uniform for a coach’s whistle. Now, as head coach at Independence High School, the 24-year-old Schilhabel’s can-do attitude is inspiring his young football players and just about everyone he encounters.
But what he encountered on a United flight out of LAX to the Dominican Republic was anything but inspiring. United’s disgraceful treatment of Schilhabel is the definition of disrespect.
Schilhabel and his young wife were traveling to the Dominican Republic to enjoy a delayed honeymoon during his school’s holiday break. In preparation for the trip, which required a change of planes in Chicago, he arrived at the airport hours early and arranged to have the airlines provide an aisle wheelchair – a narrow chair that can maneuver down an aircraft’s center aisle.
But when he arrived in Chicago, no chair was there to greet him. A United employee had to carry him to his wheelchair at the front of the plane. Barely making his connecting flight, Schilhabel’s ordeal was just beginning. When the couple landed in Punta Cana, he had to scoot down a flight of portable stairs, rather than take a ramp, elevator or lift that he expected to find at the door.
On the flight back, an elevator was provided to lift Schilhabel onto the plane, but when he arrived in Chicago, he again discovered that United had failed to provide the aisle wheelchair he had requested. Schilhabel was forced to scoot on his rear down 31 rows of the plane to his seat. You would think United would have at least opened seats in the front of the plane for the young man and his bride.
“It’s frustrating, it’s humiliating, it’s exhausting,” Schilhabel told The Californian. “I started to feel physically sick. It was just an unpleasant experience all around.”
As stories about United’s shabby treatment of Schilhabel went viral on social media, the airline apologized, and offered to refund the couple’s tickets and provide them with $1,000 in travel vouchers.
Schilhabel turned down United’s offers. Rather, for the sake of future physically challenged passengers, Schilhabel wants the world to know about the airline's poor service and callous behavior. Social media is helping Schilhabel spread that message and hopefully it eventually will help United improve its service.
Through social media and news reports just a few days later, we learned about a woman dragging a small dog behind a motorized scooter through a downtown Bakersfield neighborhood. Outraged bystanders went in pursuit to rescue dog, which was bleeding from its paws. Video clips, which show the dog’s plight, were obtained from area home security cameras and posted on social media.
The dog has received medical treatment and is reported to be recovering. The Bakersfield Police Department is investigating. The story has gone viral on the internet.
Back in the day, before the internet was a thing, this cruel behavior would likely have resulted in just a neighborhood he-said-she-said beef. Today, with nearly every person carrying a camera/video equipped cell phone, there is evidence. And with people linked to social media networks, information rapidly and widely travels.
In the hands of well-intentioned people, this new social media world can be a powerful and positive tool to right wrongs and unify us.
It is up to us as to how it will be used.