Ex-Australian cricket captain Alan Border and I have something in common. No, it’s not the inate cricket ability that he had and I dream about. It’s that, sometimes, just doing your job, or living your life, as a person with a disability, can make you grumpy.
I’m sitting in an airport gate lounge, my guide dog beside me, drinking coffee, looking at twitter, and waiting for my flight to board.
“Hi, I’m Shane,” says the ground staffer as he approaches me, “We’re ready to board you now.”
I think “Why would I want to stop what I’m doing, not finish my coffee, and exchange this spacious plastic chair for a cramped airline seat ten minutes earlier than anyone else. I say “I’m happy to board with the rest of the passengers, thanks.”
“But you’re a “special” passenger,” he says. “We want to give you more time for you and your dog to settle in.”
I think “that’s code for: we want you on and out of the way before all of the others.” I say “Thank you, I don’t need any extra time.”
“But this is a legal requirement,” he says.
I think “that’s code for: I’m now going to try to bully you.”
I say “It’s actually not, and I’m very happy hear til the flight boards, thanks Shane.”
He sighs loudly, and says “Ok, all right.” and goes away.
I think: “that’s code for: what a Captain Grumpy. And I was just trying to help.”
An hour or so later-
“Sir, we’re landing in Hobart today, and there is no aerobridge. So if you just wait til last, I’ve booked the forklift to take you off the plane.”
“But it’s just my eyes that don’t work, not my legs.” I reply.
“Well, I was just trying to help,” is the unhappy response.
“And I appreciate your help, but perhaps you should have checked with me first.”
For some blind people, this decision may have been necessary, or appreciated. Just as some people with disabilities may need or want to board first. But why not ask if that’s what we want, rather than just assume. Because of the soft bigotry of low expectations.
It happens all the time-
People who use wheelchairs are regularly discussed – in their presence – as if they were luggage.
People with disabilities travelling with family members or friends are often not talked to at all- even when the question is about them. “Can he walk down the plane aisle, or will he need the chair,” said to the friend of a man using a wheelchair.
My wife has been scolded on one flight for “allowing me” to use the “wrong” (business class) toilet.
People with disabilities are often made to wait for long periods of time. Periods of time which most customers would just not tolerate.
Why do these things happen? Because many people in the community, and thus the airline industry, have a negative or limiting view of the capability of people with disabilities. And the customer service training of airline staff – and many other service industries – on disability issues is just not adequate.
I’m very happy, at any time, for someone to offer me assistance. I’m not happy, at most times, to have the decision made for me. That’s the critical difference.
We’ll go this longer way because there’s a lift- you won’t be able to use stairs; Your dog won’t be able to go on the escalators;
Just wait here and we’ll get someone to push your wheelchair;
We want to give you special treatment, so we’re taking you onto the aircraft first, and leaving you to get off last.
When people just assume that women will interrupt their career to have children, or won’t be interested in a more senior role, women rightly get annoyed.
When people do not give job applicants with non-anglo names an interview, those applicants rightly get annoyed.
But when people assume that if you have a disability you won’t be able to do something, we’re just supposed to smile and say “thank you for patronising me.”
So, if I’m being Captain Grumpy, perhaps consider your assumptions, rather than my manners.
Graeme Innes is a disability advocate and cricket tragic, and does a fair imitation of an Alan Border media interview if negative assumptions are made about him as a result of his disability.