AUSTIN (KXAN) – A nearly deaf Florida woman in her 70s was arrested by police after she allegedly caused a disturbance at the Austin Bergstrom International Airport in September 2022. Her wrist was broken during the arrest, and she spent two nights in the Travis County jail.
Austin civil rights attorneys representing the woman said that she was not actually causing a disturbance and that it was instead a misunderstanding that led to a broken wrist, two nights in jail and severe psychological distress, her lawyers said.
Karen McGee, 71, was traveling alone from Florida to Seattle to visit her sister on Sept. 13 with a layover in Austin. McGee started losing her hearing in her early 20s and now can hear very little, relying mostly on lipreading and her hearing aids, her lawyers said. McGee does not use American Sign Language.
On Sept. 13, McGee landed in Austin and had a couple of hours before her next flight to Seattle. Since she is hard of hearing, she sat in front of her gate to ensure she would not miss boarding. Amaris Diaz, a UT Austin law student assisting with this case, said McGee, at this point, felt comfortable removing her hearing aids – as they pick up extra noise which can be distracting – since she could easily see the gate.
After some time passed, McGee began to wonder why no one was boarding. She learned that she did not hear the announcement that her gate had changed and her flight departed without her. She had to rebook her flight.
McGee was originally flying with Delta Airlines but was rebooked onto an Alaskan Airlines flight. Diaz said the Alaskan Airlines flight was not for several more hours and wouldn’t get her into Seatle until 9 p.m. McGee was made aware of an earlier flight, so she approached the help desk to inquire about getting that one.
“And that’s when things go really bad for her,” Diaz said.
McGee’s lawyers said she talked to one gate agent who was “dismissive.” She then tried to talk to a different staff member. According to police documents, the agents said that McGee was yelling and screaming at the agents. They said also that her breath smelt of alcohol. One of the Alaskan Airlines employees can be heard saying on an APD body camera video that McGee “chugged” wine at the ticket counter. McGee’s lawyers argue that this did not happen, but said McGee did have one glass of wine while waiting for her flight at AUS.
In the same video, an Alaskan airline employee was asked by an APD employee if they thought McGee was hard of hearing, and the employee said, “Yeah, she can hear. She was just not happy about what she heard.”
“We are aware of the incident involving Ms. McGee after she missed a flight on another airline and was subsequently booked onto an Alaska Airlines flight later that day. When Ms. McGee arrived at our gate, she requested to be booked on a flight which had already closed for departure. Our employees strive every day to live our company values of doing the right thing and being kind-hearted. These values were displayed this day when our employee explained to Ms. McGee the flight was already preparing to take-off, and assured Ms. McGee she was booked on a later flight. Our employee, who is proficient in American Sign Language which is displayed on her uniform, is trained to look for signs of guests who are hard-of-hearing. In this case, the customer service agent and Ms. McGee were able to communicate. The guest became disruptive and TSA officers walking by the gate intervened, during which time Austin police became involved.” – Spokesperson, Alaska Airlines
“I understand how aggravating and hard of a customer service job [working at an airport] is. And if you don’t have training for how to communicate and interact with deaf and hearing impaired customers, I could see it becoming like, very irritating, and upsetting,” Rebecca Webber said, the lead lawyer representing McGee.
McGee then sat quietly while the two Alaskan Airline employees spoke with APD. McGee was then asked to leave the airport and return the next day to rebook her flight. She does not respond, her attorney said.
Webber said McGee was unable to hear or comprehend what the officials were asking of her. KXAN reviewed the video, which shows Austin officials and police officers trying to communicate with McGee, but she does not respond and continues to use her phone.
“At this point, she’s so traumatized. It’s like she’s not able to deal,” Webber said. “What they decide to do is arrest her. It’s insane.”
At some point during the arrest, Mcgee’s wrist is broken, Webber said. She is held in a Travis County jail cell for two nights. Webber told KXAN that McGee was not a great advocate for herself but was eventually released once a judge reviewed the case and decided that McGee should no longer be detained
“In this case, the system moved slower than it normally does,” Webber said.
Now, Webber and her team are trying to work with the city to get McGee’s medical bills paid. They said if their requests are not met, they will file a lawsuit against the city.
“We can’t just wait around, I guess, for people to care,” Webber said.