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A theft of personal agency

The ability to think and act for yourself is probably something you take for granted as you pass through the world. I always had. As a tri-lingual, 30 year old professional with multiple degrees and expert knowledge in her field, there is no reason why there should be any threat to my personal agency. Until there was.

Stealing that ability, that right, from any individual is wrong, no matter how good you think you are being.

Last week, I was returning to Chicago from the Food Allergy Blogger Conference in Las Vegas where I was brought in to run a blogger help desk. Things were a little crazy at home because an air traffic control tower had been sabotaged, and I knew getting home might take longer or involve delays. I arrived at the airport 30 minutes too early to check in for my flight, so the woman working check-in allowed me to go standby on an earlier flight because of the mess in Chicago. I checked my bags and got a temporary boarding pass – to be reprinted and confirmed at my gate.

Because of the CRPS in my leg, I usually opt for a wheelchair in the airport. I am less likely to get bumped, security lines are less stressful and no one gives you a hard time about how “healthy” you look when you ask to preboard. I have done this every time I have gone to an event in the past few years I have followed this same routine. Check bags, get wheelchair, get to gate and confirm preboarding status, grab a coffee or a glass of wine – whichever is closest – and settle in until boarding begins.

All these steps were under my control. I decided whether I could leave a gate or not. Whether I was going to ask for standby status or to be rebooked when conditions went awry.

On Monday, September 29, 2014, my personal agency was taken away by Southwest Airlines.

Despite starting like any other trip to the airport, it ended very differently. Upon arrival to the gate where my new, rebooked flight was going to be boarding, the gentleman who was driving my chair went up to the desk to get my boarding pass. That part was normal. When he came back with a boarding pass and told me we were going to a different gate. Despite protests from me that, no, my flight as at the gate we started at, we kept going.

When I could see the new gate, the flight there was already boarding, so I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, it was not the flight the guy thought he was taking me to.

I was more than just a little out of luck.

We arrived at the gate, and the agent at the desk said, “Oh! We’ve been waiting for you!” My answer? “I don’t think this is my flight.” “Oh yes, it’s going to Chicago. You’re in the right place.” Her voice trailed off as the wheelchair man (does he have a better title?) rushed towards the jetway and around the lined up passengers. When the gate agent scanned my boarding pass, she reiterated that they were glad I made it. My response?
“This isn’t my flight. My bags aren’t on this plane.”
“Oh no, this is the right one.”

As we are going down the jetway, I tried one more time to plead with the wheelchair man:
“I can’t eat anything on the plane, I need to get lunch – this is a 5 hour flight!”
“No, no, you’ll be fine, this is your flight.”

When we arrived at the airplane door and he handed my backpack to the flight attendant, I tried again,
“I don’t want to be on this flight, I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Are you going to Chicago?”
“Yes, but…”
“You’re in the right place.”
“I really need to get off the plane, I can’t climb over people on the plane.”
“We’ll move someone so you can sit where you are comfortable – this is your flight.”

Great. It was most definitely not my flight (I had to wait 2 hours to get my bags even though Southwest forced me on a different flight — it was that or come back in 5 days. They refused to send them to me despite the nightmare I had just been through). So, I got to eat Dill & Sour Cream Plentils and a smushed TruBar. For lunch & dinner. Thus began five hours of stress eating lentil chips and furiously working on a project from my day job to keep the frustration at bay and the flavor dust from the chips off of my hands.

But there was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt kidnapped. I felt like a 13 year old who knew that she was perfectly able to think for herself but the world still sees her as a child. This incident should never have happened to me. It’s something that would never happen to an adult who was walking on their own, so why would you do that to someone who was not? Was it because you wrongly assumed that with the girl with the wheelchair couldn’t make her own decisions? Was it because your staff was certain that I should be happy to be rushed onto an airplane without a chance to buy an overpriced airport beverage? Or put my lucky $2 bill my aunt sent for my birthday into a slot mach? Or eat a freaking salad?

Getting on that plane should have been a decision made by me and only me. Not a gate agent or a wheelchair man. Not a flight attendant or anyone else.

Did my decision to not shout or cause a scene play in to the way things worked out? Sure. But I can’t imagine that screaming and yelling in an airport would have been the wisest move either. We can all just be grateful that it was a flight back to the city I was trying to get to.

This is a learning opportunity for Southwest Airlines, and all the airlines and customer service sectors – treat people as though they understand you fully and can handle themselves. Offer help if you are concerned, but never force it on someone. Treat every person with dignity and respect.

So, Southwest, the ball’s in your court. You have the opportunity to make this better and to make your staff better.

But this brings into question a larger question about how we see others. How we treat others. When we look at someone who we think is different, we immediately assume they are an “other”. Maybe it is a physically manifested disability or illness. Maybe it is a skin color or religious garment. Or a particular style of dress. It’s immediately putting someone in a category of “other”.

Problems arise when we start to treat those who we have labeled to be different than us differently. When they are treated as less because they are not the same as us.

But do you know for sure that the person is an other? Or how that otherness affects how they move through the world? It’s not a question we consider too often. I’m certain that I rarely have.

I was born with a certain privilege, that I know many others don’t have. My skin is white, my name is made up of names white people have used for centuries. Its only oddity is that my first name has two parts. I was lucky enough to have parents who supported me through a university education. I am not an other.

Well, at least until recently. Using a wheelchair service to get through the airport to protect some over sensitive nerves in my legs has gotten me a few odd looks. My new cane? A few more. I went from being a prime example of what we consider “normal” as a culture to immediate status as an “other”. My cane or the wheelchair a symbol of something you usually can’t see. And the change in the way I was treated completely changed.

Some people looked at me with pity or stared. Some made comments about ballsy it was to be so lazy that I would ask for a wheelchair in an airport. Some thought that for a young woman to be in a wheelchair or using a cane, there must be something else wrong. Something that made me no longer capable of thinking for myself.

Next time you think you need to help someone because they appear to be disabled, ask before helping. For me, doing something myself gives me the power to control my disease. For others, it is just a sign of humanity and respect. You cannot judge from a quick glance what a person is capable of. Making that judgement and taking away their personal agency is a demeaning and demoralizing act.

This post was also shared on Medium.

 

7 comments

  1. I am so sorry that you were treated that way. It has been a long while since I have needed a wheelchair in the airport, but I completely understand how suddenly everything changes about how some people treat you. They suddenly act as if you can’t hear well, see well, think well, when really all that has changed is that you cannot easily, physically move from one place to another and need some assistance. The entire remainder of our functions are still intact! Sadly, if you had yelled or spoken up, they might have painted you as someone with mental challenges, too, which is completely unfair! How else is one to react when being moved against their will? I hope that employee and others like him, receive the training they need to realize that physical impairments do not equal mental impairments and mental impairments do not equal complete lack of ability, awareness, and autonomy.

    • Mary Fran says:

      In the hospital, the PT said I needed to walk with it all the time. I am only using it on longer walks, it feels silly to use it, even if it is going to keep me from falling… 🙂

      And you would think it is awesome – it has old lady flowers on it. I feel it makes it hipster and ironic, which makes it ok to use 🙂

  2. Jane says:

    You’ll probably never post this comment, but this post sounds over-exaggerated. Airlines don’t put people on planes that are not supposed to be there. Southwest was accomodating you to get you on stand-by. When you fly stand-by, there is a chance your bags won’t make it on your flight but they will make it eventually. That’s a known risk for stand-by. Instead of talking about how you feel your personal agent was threatened, I’m certain if you would have explained your situation and concern to the flight staff, they would have treated you with respect and addressed your concerns.

    • Mary Fran says:

      I’m not sure how you think this is an exaggeration. It is what happened.

      As for the bags, if anything, they would have made it ahead of me. I wasn’t on a standby list for the flight I was on. And they did put me on a plane I was not supposed to be on. A man pushing my wheelchair made the decision for me to take an earlier flight. Not me. I ended up with a valid boarding pass for the flight I ended up on.

      Voicing my concern to everyone I encountered left me with some variation of “This is the right flight, it is going to Chicago.” The wheelchair attendant agreed to a flight change without consulting me or showing me the new boarding pass. Once I started going through the airport in the chair, I never saw my boarding pass again, the wheelchair guy held on to it. It was that change without my consent that started the rest which happened in maybe 15 minutes.

      Everyone I tried to talk to after that, while in the chair that I couldn’t get out of without help from the person driving it, kept saying I was in the right place as the wheelchair guy pushed past. There was no way to just get up. You can’t really stop a chair someone else is pushing, particularly with nerve damage in a leg and a large bag in your lap. And it wasn’t until I realized that I was being taken to board that plane that people were already boarding that I was sure something was wrong.

      You can not believe this all you want. When you weren’t given the time to talk to someone, how then do you explain yourself? By the time I got to the door of the plane, I felt completely defeated. The plane was at least going to get me to my home city.

      • Jackie says:

        I’ve seen this happen multiple times to my mom. Not in airlines, but everywhere. I’ve seen elderly people get upset at my mom using the handicap parking, I’ve seen people talk down to her, or the ever popular “you don’t look sick.” How does sick look? Does it require an eyeball popping out?
        Nonetheless, my mom is always nice and sweet, but witty and sincere when she talks about her struggles. But she’s made scenes without making a scene before to get her point across. My favorite is stop, this is wrong, and I’m going to struggle getting out of this chair because I’m right and you’re wrong.
        Good luck and hopefully you won’t deal with that again.

  3. I am writing a case study for my graduate program neuroscience course on CRPS and I keep thinking of you and all you go through every day. I just wanted to stop by and send hugs and read up on your new passion for ballet. What an incredible gift and exciting way to channel your energy!

    Then I saw the comment above and I am angry. I’m disappointed that someone would think it’s OK to come on your site and have the nerve to post that uninformed comment. You shared your experience, an insightful perspective of what it’s like to have an invisible illness. We should all listen, with open, empathetic hearts, and try to make things different, starting with ourselves.

    There isn’t much use in ranting (let’s stay… positive 😉 ), but I just want you to know that you are incredibly strong and I have so much respect for you. I hope you realize how many people see these posts (and may never comment on them) but are inspired to keep going because of them.

    <3 Thank you for sharing all that you do. Even when there are not-so-nice people in the world.

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