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.

I suffer from a rare neurological condition that makes even a gentle breeze painful, so 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. It’s part of my travel routine. Check bags, get wheelchair, forget you wore the worst shoes ever for going through security and probably a rogue tube of hand lotion in your purse, get to gate and confirm preboarding status, grab a coffee or a glass of wine — whichever is closest — and settle in until boarding begins.

These steps were always under my control (even wearing shoes with laces on a day I knew I was going to fly). 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. I was the agent of my decisions. A very privledged place to be.

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. That my flight had indeed changed gates.

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 or the flight I was on standby for. It was an entirely new 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.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Chronic Positivity Project

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