Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Our Flight: Part Four

I stepped off the plane and was greeted by the fellow who was there to help get me from the gate to the baggage area. I told him immediately that I would walk up the long ramp into the airport. I am not good at walking, I have very poor balance, but if I go slow, hold my hand up against the wall touching it all the way, I can manage. It seems that the extra information from my fingertips on the wall assists with the balance. I don't like being pushed up hill. I know that I'm a big guy and I don't want to cause injury or stress for someone assisting me. The fellow walked a bit ahead of me at first and then, as I continued very slowly, he got up to the end of the ramp.

Just as I got there, I noticed him notice someone out in the gate area. He pointed his head back at me and then held up his arms wide, with his fingers held such like he was describing something very wide, and then puffed out his cheeks. All to indicate to someone through crude signs that I was hugely fat. Well, I am hugely fat, but I don't like being mocked or mimicked in any way. I was immediately angry. I mean I WAS RIGHT THERE. HE DID IT RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I said to him, 'I saw what you did.' He looked over at me, grinning, as if it was a big joke and that my seeing it and being hurt by it made it even funnier.

I sat in my chair. By now I was winded and in my upset I'd lost my balance entirely. I was in danger of falling. Once seated I turned to him and said, 'You will not help me, get away from me and get away from me right now.' He started towards the back of the chair, obviously about to push me out into the gate area. I now shouted, 'If you touch this chair I will consider it assault, now get away from me and get out of here!!!!' The fellow at the gate, whomever was in charge, came over and I said, 'I saw what he did, he stood there in front of a gate full of people and mocked me, made fun of my weight, I will not be treated this way.' The mocker, didn't even try to deny what he had done, he just said, to the fellow, not to me, 'Sorry.'

I wanted then to make a complaint but the man wouldn't leave, he just stood there trying to muffle laughter. To him this was just plain funny. Maybe fat people look ridiculous when upset or something. I tried and tried to get the gate attendant to get him away from me. Finally he sent the fellow to help another passenger in a wheelchair. Right, when someone alleges that an assistance staff has engaged in abusive behaviour, send them to help others. Don't investigate the claim, don't take it seriously, just try to calm down one upset wheelchair user and act in complicity with the abuser by simply assigning them a different person. Good strategy. I wonder why there is so much abuse of people with disabilities - maybe it's because people just don't want to take it seriously.

Now, we are stuck at the gate. I notice when I roll myself out that there is an eerie quiet at the gate. They'd all seen a show and were waiting to see how it played out. I didn't realize, until later because I was upset, that many of them would have seen what he did. Any one of them could have spoken up. Not one of them did. They all, seemed by their silence, to either approve of what he did - he was only mocking a fat guy after all, it's not like he said anything racist or sexist or homophobic - or they disapproved of my loud complaint. I couldn't sit there in a room full of people who stared out the edges of their eyes. I pushed on to the elevator.

On the way to the baggage, I saw someone from the flight and spoke to her. I described what happened. I needed help to get to baggage but would not take help from someone who felt comfortable to make a joke about my size in front of me and in front of at least a hundred waiting for the next flight. After I told her what happened it actually took her a moment to say, 'Oh, right, he shouldn't have done that.' She clearly didn't see the seriousness of it, the effect that would have had on my sense of self and how difficult it would be to turn and face a room of people after they'd seen his crude imitation of me.

We got to the baggage under our own steam. I managed to get up several long ramps. Joe and I, together, got out and to the rental car.

I constantly hear about the 'power of one' ... the idea that one person can make a difference. Well one person can - but the difference they make is a choice. We need to remember that one person can lift a spirit but that another person can lift a gun. We need to remember that one person my choose to show kindness but that a hundred, individual, one persons can watch someone humiliate another and choose to say nothing. It is never 'one person' and 'many people' ... it's always, only and ever, 'one'.

I am as angry at the 'one person' who choose to make what had been a good flight an unpleasant one as I am at all those who watched, in silent approval - because silence is consent - as 'one man' openly humiliated 'one man'.

Joe said as we drove away, 'Don't forget check in, don't forget the ride, don't forget the people on the plane, don't forget the kindness in the face of the cruelty.' And he's right. That's why I told this story in stages. There was so many people, all individuals, who made the decision to be helpful and kind. I can't let 'one person make a difference'.

But gosh, that's hard.


Anonymous said...

Oh Dave,

in Germany we have a word for what I feel now "fremd schämen".

I guess it translates that I am feeling shame for something someone else did.

My Grandma sometimes behaves like this, pointing from her balcony in the city at people an saying "look this fat woman", "look this ugly guy".

Thats when I tell her not do it. It is not funny!!! But she does not get it. I dont know why. At all the other times she is such an nice grandmother but in those moments I feel shame for her doing this.

I felt the same shame reading your post.

I am sorry this happend to you. Sometimes people point at me too. Because I have slightly bluer lips and bigger fingertips. That doesnt make me feel good in public :-(.

Hope your other experiences help balance this ugly one.


CL said...

I am so, so sorry that this happened to you. The person who did it is horrible -- what a callous, contemptible jerk.

I've been thinking about what I would have done if I had been standing nearby, and sadly I don't think I would have said anything -- I probably would have scowled or looked pained, but remained silent. I wish I could say I speak up in those situations. I'm so hesitant and afraid of confrontation, especially with people watching.

I imagine at least some -- I hope most -- of the people there disapproved but were passive, watching something that didn't involve them. I hope it wasn't that they approved or thought it was funny. But it's still shameful to speak up, and I'm sorry on behalf of everyone who doesn't speak up in those situations. I'm going to think about this and really try to remember, next time something awful happens in front of me, that I should say something.

CL said...

I don't usually correct my typos, but I meant it's shameful to NOT speak up -- sorry

Kristin said...

I am so damned sorry Dave. No one deserves to be treated that way. I don't know if you've thought about it but you might want to write a letter (both snail mail and email) and send it to the head of personnel for the airline.

wendy said...

I was sitting at my computer reading this post with steam pouring out of my ears. That man has no business in any kind of "helping" role and his supervisor is not much better. I'm so sorry that happened to you.

The bystanders were doing what groups of people do...nothing, expecting that someone else would act. If even one person had said something I'm guessing many more would have joined in.

I'm just so sorry this happened.

Tamara said...

I should have known I was being lulled into a good feeling about people changing on this trip. @#$&*

Mocking you, thinking it was funny that you saw him mock you, thinking it was even funnier when you got upset about it; someone at the gate who didn't stand up to him; and how many people who were silent.

Sounds like a schoolyard.


Joe's right about remembering all the good things that happened, but I would tend to remember this one bad thing for much longer than all the positives.

Anonymous said...

I'm really sorry this happened to you, Dave. Like CL, I pledge that if I witness someone being mistreated in such a fashion, I will speak up. Because being angrily silent helps no one.


Karen said...

Oh Dave, I am horrified. Do you have any recourse for complaint?
Since I first found your blog and started reading, you have been my hero Dave. You do so much for people with multiple challenges.I wish I had been there to advocate for you for a change.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Tamara and Sue, even one person speaking up would have made such a huge difference to me ... just validating what I said. Joe didn't say anything either, he says that he was so shocked and shaken that he was lost for words. So, it would have been wonderful if only one person, not so emotionally invested would have said something. I, personally don't see what it would have cost someone to say something. I really don't. I am pleased if this blog makes a difference and if readers double think situations like these and therefore end silence.

Just Jess for now said...

I am completely speechless with rage. That sort of behavior is not okay and very appalling! I am so sorry you had to experience that.

Kris S. said...

What a d*ck.

ivanova said...

What a horrible ending to the good-until-then plane trip. Extremely depressing, but it will help me remember NOT to mind my own business and to butt in to strangers' problems when I see injustice, abuse, etc. At least you had one person on your side--yourself. I honestly don't know if I could have protected myself from that joker if I were in your position (because I would feel too beaten-down.)

Warbucks said...

I am outraged for two reasons-- one, that this happened in the first place, and second, that I suspect I would have said nothing as it happened. There is so much disconnect between people and situations, and I admit that I have, to an extent, bought into the safety of this disconnect.

I've been following your blog for several months and I am glad to say that you have certainly influenced me. This posts is one of the instances.

This weekend I attended the Busker Festival. As I was leaving, there was a fellow asking for change. He did not approach me, but he did approach three teenage girls. They tittered and laughed at him, and as they walked away, I heard them say that they should have given him a penny, or better yet, a dollar and ask for 99 cents in change. I was enraged at their carelessness and their calousness, at their giggling-disregard for a fellow human being. But even in my rage, I did nothing. I did not approach them, challenge them to think of this person as someone's son, someone's loved-one. As *someone*.

Akin to the post with the person calling himself a retard for some action and then publicly correcting himself (to the embarrassment of his friend), this post has challenged me to reevaluate my social responsibility. I sincerely hope that next time I speak up.

Thank you for sharing (as well as the challenge to be a better person) :)

Andrea S. said...

I regret to say I probably would have been one of the people remaining silent: I probably would have been too much in shock to think straight.

One time, a few colleagues of mine who were all people who worked with deaf college students (and some of us were ourselves deaf as well) were speaking at a panel discussion about tutoring deaf college students. Another panelist actually referred to the students she worked with as "deaf and dumb" which I think most of Dave's readers know is both considered old fashioned/outmoded and offensive. And all of us who were there failed to speak up--we talked afterwards and decided we were too numb with shock. It's hard to come up with any response at all, much less a good one, when your brain is still struggling to grasp the idea that this thing has actually happened in the first place.

The above anecdote was in a relatively straightforward situation where I could at least understand what was being said (because a sign interpreter was there). In contexts where I am not likely to have an interpreter with me it gets even more complicated. On one hand, I can sometimes read a situation well enough by watching people's body language and facial expressions. On the other hand I may also miss critical information in what is being said or the tone in which they're saying it (which may not always match up to their body language, and sometimes it can be hard even for sighted, hearing people to identify whether it is the body language or the tone that is more accurate). And the trickiest thing is, I can't always know whether the reading I *think* I have made is accurate or not. So I could also picture myself seeing the guy do what he did and being in shock trying to decide if I really saw what I think I saw, or am I misinterpreting because I'm missing the auditory stuff going on?

And I know this doesn't give any comfort to you: you needed for someone to speak up and not be too much in shock to know how to. I wish I knew a better answer how those of us who *want* to do the right thing can learn disarm that initial moment of stunned horror so we can jump more quickly to a productive response.

Would a pre-written "script" of some kind help? I'm not sure whether it would help me or not in these situations. Might it help others?

Dave, if you could write a script for other people to follow in this kind of context, what do you wish they would say? Or is it the tone and the general concept of someone saying, "No this is not okay" that matters more? Would you wish for people to confront the person being mean to you, or would you wish for them to talk to you? For example, if my brain did come out of shock long enough to come up with a coherent response, I think one of my instincts might be to turn to the person being attacked, read their body language to see how they seem to be responding, and perhaps ask if they are okay.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

How awful! that person should not be helping anyone. I agree with Joe - focus on the kindness you experienced.

However, I have to admit 2 things -1) in that situation I would be so angry I would be focusing on the person who mocked me, 2) if I was an observer I probably would not have intervened on your behalf, I am ashamed to say. And that would make me complicit.

I am not sure why people do not intervene when they witness something so wrong - self-preservation? I am fairly outspoken when I witness abuse but I find that often it takes a while for the reality that it was abuse that I witnessed to sink in. I think that this is fairly common - did I just see what I thought I saw? what is everybody else doing (social referencing)? no-one else is reacting like this is abuse so maybe I didn't see what I thought I saw.

Dave, I hope you go after that guy's a**. He should be fired for being so profoundly disrespectful and abusive to a person he was supposed to be helping.

And I hope in the end this horrible incident doesn't ruin what otherwise seems to have been a good trip.


Rosemary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rosemary said...

I was so happy , reading the first 3 installments. You see, I am very fat and I can't walk long distances, due to a separate medical condition. Whenever I fly, I fret and worry over the person who has to push heavy, old me. I worry because some of the chairs are too narrow and my hips rub against the wheels as I am pushed. I worry because the pushers often do not look strong. I feel like an old piece of baggage that is not welcomed. Anyway, the first 3 parts of your story made me happy and feeling hopeful. Of course, part four had to be read. I was caught off guard by it. I usually do not allow myself to forget how mean and stupid people can be... s to protect myself, to be prepared for the worst. There it was in black and white, my worst nightmare.
I have had a good cry for you and for me. I am proud of you for speaking up. If it happened to me, I probably would have tried to diappear into myself, yeah, right. I think that if I witnessed it happening to someone else, I would have spoken up. That is odd, I know. Yours, Rosemary

GirlWithTheCane said...

What a terrible story, Dave.

It just floors me that people still think it's okay to mock...openly abuse...people who are overweight.

What happened to you was inexcusable, Dave. I like to think that I would have spoken up, but honestly? If I'd heard you lay into the guy the way it sounds like you did, I would have thought, "This is a man who can fight his own battles. He doesn't need anyone to step in."

But sometimes we do need the support of others, no matter how strong we seem. Thank you for reminding me of this.

I would encourage you to report to the airline what happened to you. Like I said, it was inexcusable, and they need to know that they have employees that are behaving like that.

Anonymous said...

What an awful experience and as many others am as well angered by this and very sorry this has happened and do hope that young man looses his job. I can honestly say that 10 years ago I probably would of been a silent bystander but this whole getting older thing has made much less tolerable for rude, mocking, bullying type actions that I know I would of said something that he clearly would of got, may not of stopped his rudeness but maybe just maybe......Once again what an awful situation and am so sorry Dave.

Belinda said...

It is shocking and saddening to read what the man did. He really should be reported and have corrective action for his abusive behaviour which is harassment. He is being paid to help people with disabilities and he acts like that?

As for the silence of others, I bet they were mostly shocked and stunned. Silence in such a case doesn't always mean consent but sometimes distaste, discomfort and dismay.

On my recent flight back to Canada from England a woman in the line up for the flight made a racist remark about others in the line up. I distanced myself from her, made no further conversation with her, but I didn't get into the rights and wrongs of what she said. Maybe I was wrong. Probably. I thought about it a lot. I felt like saying that when we invaded and plundered the countries of others, one of the few rights they gained was being able to share ours. Anyway, my point is that I bet they hated what he did and despised him for it. Maybe next time all of us will speak up.

clairesmum said...

obviously my comment yesterday doesn't apply after all! this stinks, but you and we already know that. I hope there will be consequences for the offender - but the cynic in me doubts it! As for the lack of response by bystanders, previous comments have said it clearly enough. Do I know what I would have done - no - but I am flying Air Canada from Boston to your lovely Canadian Rockies next week. Clearly I need to know in my own mind what my response will be if this occurs in my presence. Thanks for provoking me to seriously consider if I will put my mouth and my person into an active role, not just my words from the safety of my keyboard.

Maggie said...

I am so sorry you had this experience, especially after so much else on the flight had been so positive.

Like other commenters, I wonder if I would have had the fortitude to intervene. And if I could have said anything that would have made an actual difference.

Just once, long ago, I intervened in a similar situation. I spoke strongly to the powerful person who was making misery for the person-with-a-visibly-apparent-disability. The powerful person stopped, defended their action to me in the hearing of their victim, and turned back to the victim to continue the wrong.

The victim, perhaps (I supposed) emboldened by my support, declined to continue being mistreated and ended the conversation. Later we encountered each other away from the powerful abuser.

"You should have spoken to ME," said the victim. "By speaking to him, you were underlining the difference in our power and tacitly agreeing with him that I was powerless. Your intervention did more harm than good."

What would have worked, in the situation you described, for you? If I had been there, should I have asked you what I could do to be useful to you? Should I have reprimanded the so-called professional who was so abusive? Should I have confronted the gate person on the disrespect of ignoring your request?

What could a bystander have done that would not have compounded the pain for you?

I am SO sorry you had this experience. I wish I felt less powerless in similar situations when I'm a bystander.

Shan said...

When that stupid movie "Shallow Hal" came out I preached endlessly to anyone who would listen about how plus-size people are the only group who it's still okay to make fun of. My blood just boils.

But I'm not angry about this guy with his puffed out cheeks. I'm actually frightened, because he represents a sort of Lord of the Flies, Nazi mindset where making fun of someone overweight and/or disabled is a matter of course, not worth remark. His attitude comes from a position of utter superiority, hence his total lack of remorse. It's sociopathic. He doesn't see you as a human.

I recall people like this from when I was a kid. They were the little boys that tortured animals in the woods, and came back fresh-faced and ruddy-cheeked to get big hearty lunches from their doting mothers. I am still terrified of them.

Susan Goharriz said...

Which airline permits employees to harass it's customers? This is so unacceptable from so many different perspectives!! Right now airlines are hurting for passengers - perhaps your readers could be allowed to vote with their feet?

Dave Hingsburger said...

Susan, the fellow was someone contracted by the airport (not airline) to assist passengers with disabilities. The fellow who was at the gate on arrival, I'm not sure who he worked for. In Canada, those who assist Canadian Airlines are employees of the Airlines, not airport. I think that makes a difference.

theknapper said...

Is there an address where we can express our outrage and concern re this man's beaviour?

Holly Fedele said...


I'm sorry that you experienced that.

I would like to say that I would have spoken up and I'm 90% sure I would have, but that 10% still bothers me. More than likely, that 10% would have kept me from speaking loudly in front of anyone else, but I would have spoken to you. I would have shaken your hand and apologized for that a-hole's terrible behavior.

I'm not sure if you watch much tv, but there is a show called "What Would You Do" and it often gives scenarious like that (with actors in the main parts) to see what others would do. After many of the clips, there is either a Sociologist or Psychologist discussing why or why not other's chose to speak up. They explain things such as peer pressure, group think, mob mentality, etc very well. I try to remember that all it takes is one person to speak up for others to feel comfortable speaking up. Once someone breaks the silence, it becomes so much easier for the rest of the group. I will add this hurtful moment in your life to my mental file of "reasons to break the silence."

It is also strange to me how we as people take what is most close to us and use that for our strength. My son has Down syndrome and you better believe that I am NEVER silent about mistreatment to those with Down syndrome. I am NEVER silent when I hear the word "retard." That loudness has often translated to loudness in other areas but not nearly enough. I need to transfer it to being able to vocalize distaste and anger when ANYONE is being disrespected. Again, I am sorry that you experienced that hatred. Karma is a bitch and that man has it coming.