Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Hostile Chair Woman

I was sitting in the shade of a tree gazing over a beautiful lake. It was lovely. I was enjoying a bit of down time between rides and splash pads and bouncy castles. Joe and Marissa were off with Ruby and Sadie doing something, somewhere. We had brought both wheelchairs. We've discovered that having the manual chair along is great for carrying stuff on the back and it's a good place for Joe or the kids to sit when they get tired.

I was sitting in my power chair and my manual was beside me, maybe a foot away. It had coolers, and other necessary stuff, hanging off the back. Other adults, also waiting, were sitting in other spots around me. It was kind of a natural place to wait or rest.

Suddenly I notice that a woman, in her thirties, had plopped herself down in my manual chair. I was horrified, "That's my wheelchair," I said. She looked at me with hostility, "Well, you're not using it are you?" I was aghast. I sputtered, "No, but it's still my wheelchair ..." before I could finish a fellow calls out to her, "Get your ass out of his wheelchair." She got up and left, huffing and puffing like there was a house made of sticks to blow down.

I still don't understand why she would sit in my wheelchair. I don't understand why she would presume to have the right to do so and to be hostile in response to information. My head had done a quick calculation which was ... no one would ever do this, maybe she thinks it's a random chair left around the park like you see at airports ... so I gave her information ... "That's my wheelchair." Her response told me that she either knew or didn't care. What she also didn't care about was my protest.

She got up and out of the chair because she was told to by someone else. Some non-disabled guy hollering at her to get out of my chair. My protest didn't matter. His did. In fact her response to his demand was almost immediate.

In the end I was upset that she plopped herself down in my wheelchair. I don't know how other's feel about their wheelchairs but mine is mine. I have no problem with my very close friends or my very close family sitting in my chair, but no one else and certainly not without permission. Heck, even Ruby and Sadie ask if they can sit in my chair - and they are kids!

But I was also annoyed, a bit, with the fellow who took over the interaction and spoke for me. True she valued his voice more than mine, but still I can fight my own battles and I don't need rescuing. I am pretty confident that, once I'd realized that I was dealing with someone who had done something purposeful, not accidental, I was ready to ramp up the interaction. I would have, I think, been able to make my voice heard.

Then the kids were back laughing full of stories of what they'd done. I used their laughter as a remedy to stop to ruminations in my head. It was time to get back to fun.


Kris S. said...

What the heck?!?

Moomin Girl said...

Wow, how rude of her! :(

liz said...

I would've been the guy who spoke up, because I always feel like silence abets the wrong-doer.

Alison Cummins said...

In terms of speaking up for other people... some of us are tired of having all our battles be personal ones, and appreciate community support.

In those intent pile-ones when a bunch of men are accusing a woman of being uppity and ugly, sure, the woman can probably manage on her own. But it’s nice if she has a posse who has her back.

On the metro not long ago a white man started berating a black woman for bumping into him. When she realized he wasn’t going to have a rational exchange with her she tried to ignore him, which resulted in him escalating. As soon as he started taking a tone which sounded like it was about to become overtly racist, I reprimanded him sharply and told him to can it. He did. I asked her if she were ok. She said she was.

Part of creating and maintaining safe spaces, both virtual and physical, is not turning away when someone is being assaulted in front of you. Bullies pick on the powerless, but if the community has your back you aren’t powerless.

Sometimes those of us speaking up when we see someone behaving badly are going to get it wrong.

Alison Cummins said...

Another guy who spokeup (long, but fun).

Dave Hingsburger said...

Alison and Liz, I had trouble writing this because I do appreciate that he spoke up ... it's just that I didn't think it was at a point of my needing that help. I didn't want to make him out a bad guy in the story - he wasn't. I'd rather someone step in too early than not at all. It still bugs me that she responded to him, not to me. Though he was much more clear in his message than I had been in mine!

Susan said...

Now there is an example of someone with entitlement issues of gargantuan proportions. Sheesh.

Alison Cummins said...

Dave, as I was recounting my incident and quoting someone else’s, it became clear to me that the two targets were both attempting to make the problem go away by ignoring it, not confronting it. This is different from your incident where you were directly addressing your interloper.

Of course it stings when your own voice is apparently not enough. As a woman I’ve dealt with the infuriating reality that a significant proportion of men cannot hear “I do not want to have sex with you” but have perfectly functioning ears when it comes to “I belong to a man who does not want me to have sex with you.” This was a bigger problem when I was younger and perceived as more vulnerable, but has never entirely gone away.

Thought: would it have stung as much if he’d said “The man said it’s his chair,” reinforcing your voice instead of replacing it? A man interrupting a harasser with “the lady said no” is so much less humiliating than having to say that you’re waiting for your husband.

(I know that the story was about the hostile chair woman and not the well-intentioned bystander, but the WIB is so much more interesting for me to deconstruct! The HCW was just being thoughtless and defensive/ a dick.)

re-fresh said...

Perhaps as adults, we are much like children: one parent gives direction but not until the second parent jumps in does the child react....just a thought? This woman had a lot of gall...I am curious to know how she might have reacted had someone asked her if she would like to go for a "walk"?...and been "pushed" along....

Anonymous said...

Dave, I'm curious as to why you only said, "That's my wheelchair." Your statement was declarative. You didn't tell her that you wanted her to get out of it, you merely informed her that it was yours.

The guy who told her "Get your ass out of his wheelchair" issued an imperative--a command. And she responded. Perhaps she responded because she knew the guy, but I think she responded because he told her what exactly what she should do.

I know that you regard your wheelchair as an extension of your body, and that what she did was akin to plopping herself down in your lap, uninvited. SHE didn't know that, however.

And while your statement "That's my wheelchair" might have been clear to you, it was not clear to someone who was clueless enough to try to use it in the first place.

I'm not excusing her behavior in any fashion. But I'm suggesting that if someone is clueless enough to violate your boundaries, you must break through that cluelessness with very specific demands as to how you need them to behave.

Just a thought--Sue

Anonymous said...

Dave, I just re-read the last line of your comment. Yes, he was much more clear, and I think that's what she responded to--not that she was responding just because he was abled.


Jeannette said...

My thought is that the woman had emotional or mental problems of some sort. I'm not a mental-health professional, not at all, but I have occasionally met people who seem to relish the chance to have a hostile interchange with a stranger. I suspect that the man with her was in the role of caretaker, whether he was a paid caretaker, family member, or friend.

Anonymous said...

Were there other seats available? In the years before I got my wheelchair, there were often times when I had to sit down *now*.

She may have needed to sit down, but she should have asked first. Unfortunately some people get hostile when they realize they are wrong.


Rachel said...

Some people just have no sense of boundaries. I'd be just as upset if someone sat in a lawn chair or under an umbrella that was yours. It's yours and no one should be using any of your property without your permission. Of course, the fact that it was a wheelchair makes it even worse, because it's your mobility, but the boundary violation is the thing that spins my head around.

I have a lot of fellow feeling with what Alison is saying about wanting people to have your back and speak up for you. It's so hard for other people to tell when speaking up is wanted and when they should let us fight our own battles. In general, I long for people to have my back and to not have to fight my battles all by myself all the time. I have a very hard time verbalizing under the best of conditions, and being in a public place with noise and crowds and sensory overload make verbalization even harder. I had someone get in my face the other day in the market and I spoke up, but it used up a bunch of spoons, and I would have loved it if someone had backed me up and told the woman to shove off.

In your case, I'm not sure that the woman responded to the man because he was abled. I think she likely responded because it was two against one. If one person says no, some people think they can get away with stuff. Two people say no, and most people will back down from a confrontation. There is strength in numbers.

Anonymous said...

When I was reading this, I thought,"oh, who would do that?" I can't imagine but think the lady had some challenges. She obviously, didn't know Dave!

Anonymous said...

Respectfully, I don't agree, or at least not completely. As Rachel points out, it seems clear that the woman didn't have a sense of boundaries (or had a sense of them but didn't want to respect them). Even if it were just a lawn chair or something, it should be plain enough to anyone that "The item you are touching and using is mine" should mean you stop using it and apologize. Or if the need to use it is desperate, then politely explain and ask for permission.

Although I do wish more people understood that wheelchairs, crutches, canes are often extensions of people's body (and thus much too intimate to just touch and use, I really don't think that the woman needed to know all this to know that you just don't randomly touch things belonging to strangers without at least asking first. And that an assertation of possessiveness ("X is mine") means "hands off".

I also think the woman's reaction of hostility and defensiveness shows pretty clearly that she understood the implied meaning behind Dave's statement just fine without the translation into an imperative.

Possibly hearing an imperative gave her less excuse for pretending miscomprehension. Or as others have suggested, it became two on one. But I do think that many members of society do tend to devalue the voices of pretty much everyone from various marginalized populations including people with disabilities. We can't retroactively read the woman's mind to know what she was really thinking, but I do see it as a real possibility that hearing it from an able bodied person may have meant more to her. (I am remembering a blog post Dave wrote some years ago in which some airport employee tried to seize his luggage on the excuse that the luggage wasn't "accompanied" by anyone--even though DAVE was with the luggage and explained this to him clearly and repeatedly. And the guy only quit trying to seize his luggage when a fellow employee--able bodied--intervened on Dave's behalf)

Andrea S.

liz said...

Dave, I didn't mean to imply that your annoyance with him was unjustified, just that I would have done the same for fear of erring on the other side.

I would have probably had said, "The man did not give you permission to sit in his chair." though.

Anonymous said...

I can marginally understand your feeling about someone sitting in your chair. I had just a whisper of it while on holiday once. I had rented a power chair. Thankfully I am able to leave the chair and walk very short distances. After parking my chair is a safe place and removing the key, I walked a few steps away to stand in line to get into an event. I was in agony standing but it was part of the process. Lo and behold a woman comes along and sits in "my" chair. I was indignant. How dare she sit in something that didn't belong to her. How dare she sit her butt down in something I paid for and am responsible for!! I can only imagine the way you felt having a stranger plop herself down in YOUR personal chair. If I got so ticked at someone sitting in my week rental I would have been very angry with someone in my seat! One nice thing is that your feelings were not yours alone. She crossed a major line. Glad laughter came along to wash away the bits of disgust.

Deb said...

There's a car commercial running now that irritates me to no end for this same reason. It's raining and this woman runs and ducks under a stranger's umbrella with the excuse that they are headed in the same direction, she leaves his umbrella for the shelter of another man's umbrella and then a third's, and finally ends up at her cadillac dry and entitled.

Precisely their message, "YOU are entitled - to whatever you have the $ to buy, no matter how many people you have to use to achieve your goal."

Popular media promotes the idea that anything you can take away from someone else is yours. I know a lot of people who feel entitled to take/use anything they want, and they will abuse/attack anyone who stands in their way.

I wouldn't be hard on the guy who spoke up on your behalf. He probably hadn't sat around thinking about how he might respond to a situation like that in words that might make a wheelchair user feel empowered. He simply responded, trying to be helpful, and he was. She did get up and go after all.