Monday, May 20, 2013

Focus on Flying

There's a story that is making it's way around disability blogs and which is often posted and reposted on Facebook. It's about a woman with a disability who had be placed in an airplane seat at the front of the plane because the boarding staff didn't have an aisle chair available. An elite (?) flier demanded that she be given that seat because it was her right to premium seating because of her status. The article did not make it clear to me if she had booked that seat herself.

As you can predict .. uproar.

Two thing disturb me about this - first, and most concerning, over half of New Zealanders who were interviewed sided with the woman, thinking that she was well within her rights and that, though they would have given up their seats, they understand why the elite flier didn't. (a hit of a 'those damned disabled people and their demands' comes through). Yikes ... there is a hardening of attitudes towards those of us in the disability community.

The second is that the discussion is about the woman with a disability at all. She is a completely passive player in the story. Let's review:

1) she did not ask for that seat, she had a seat
2) the airline placed her there at their convenience, not hers
3) she could not have predicted that they wouldn't have an aisle chair available
4) the airline was asking the woman to move to accommodate the needs of the woman with a disability but that was disingenuous, they were actually asking her to move to accommodate the airlines needs.

Therefore this was a dispute between the airline and and elite flier. Disability is only a sidebar to the story. Yet, this story has made it out like:

1) disabled people are demanding
2) disabled people expect special treatment
3) disabled people are a nuisance

and most concerningly these days ...

4) disabled people take resources away from non-disabled people

I don't know Ms Black, of course, but I have been in these situations - I'd like to be as invisible as possible when in these situations. When stores, or hotels, or airlines centre me out I go through all 27 layers of hell (those who fit the norm think there are much fewer) as things get resolved. And yet, in each situation, I am seen as the problem - when, I'm not ...

A little example:

I book a hotel room, make it clear when I'm doing so I need the accessible room, I receive an email guaranteeing me the accessible room. I arrive to find out that a clerk has, five minutes before, checked another guest into the room reserved for me. Much upset ensues. The other guest is called and asked to vacate the room. Other guest comes down, glares at me for disturbing him. The reputation of disabled people sinks - seldom does anyone recognise that the guest is being asked to move by the hotel, because of their error, not by me. It becomes about me, not about a clerk who mistakenly gave my room away, not about a hotel that has a very loose policy about accessible rooms, not about the fact that I had only one option and that I booked that option. No, it becomes about what 'disabled people want.'

There are thousands of other examples. All of which shift the focus away from the real issue - which isn't my disability - and makes it suddenly like a spotlight has been shone on my wheelchair.

This story isn't about anything more than an airline asking a passenger to move to accommodate their needs in boarding the plane and getting off the ground on time. Yet, I'll bet that most of the people on that flight will talk about disability not about the unpreparedness of the airline with the right equipment and the attitude of someeone who believes that their needs need to be accommodated.

That's right - this is about needs demanding to be accommodated - the needs of ego, not the needs of mobility.


Liz said...


Moose said...

You're lucky that you're staying somewhere that will even go so far as to make sure you get an accessible room.

When I travel, which is no where near as frequently as you, I often use, shall we say, chains with lower prices.

If I've reserved an accessible room it's a crap shoot whether I actually get it.

I've had clerks lie to me and claim my reservation "wasn't guaranteed" for an accessible room (saying, "It's only a preference, we can't guarantee that"), tell me that I didn't reserve one, or, my favorite, tell me that I cancelled the reservation for an accessible room and made a new one for a regular room!

I've reported these every time it happens but these types of chains could care less about people who are spending $50 for an ugly little room.

Unknown said...

Well said.

CL said...

Ugh. I really like your point that this was between the "elite" flier and the airline, not the person with the disability who never asked for any of it.

But I also think there should be an ethic of moving around to accommodate others on all forms of mass transit. I've seen tall people ask if they can switch with someone in the emergency aisle. I've seen people ask to be closer to the restroom. And someone once asked for my aisle seat because she had wide hips and would be more comfortable there. In all of those situations that I can remember, the person who was asked agreed immediately. They were thanked, they switched, and that was that.

I hope someone would do the same for me if I ever needed to be in a particular seat, and I can't imagine saying no to that type of request. It's just basic human kindness to help out someone who needs your seat or (in this case) to help out the airline employees when switching seats will solve a problem for them.

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Anonymous said...

You had me up to the end - about the ego vs. mobility. You pointed out it is the fault of the airline not to be prepared. It is not the person who bought their ticket in good faith (by front of plane it may have been first class). In all fairness why should she have to give up her seat? Been the person with needs, I would be so grateful for someone doing so - but I wouldn't expect it. If I had let the airline know my needs ahead of time (like I do) then I would expect them to meet my needs. All it would take is having a plane full of disgruntled patrons to tarnish the airlines reputation while I wait for them to get the necessary promised equipment. The airlines should have been prepared to accommodate, not the fellow passenger. Saying the woman is elite or egotistical is another form of prejudice - she has a right to use what she paid for - just as the woman with extra needs has the right to get the service she requested. I do feel sorry for the woman with the needs - she must have wished she could disappear - but she shouldn't. She is a paying customer and should be treated like one. Sad.

Cynthia F. said...

thanks for this helpful framing, i will look out for this kind of story on FB or wherever and be sure to point out that it's about the institution's needs or errors, not the disabled individual's.