Must I always be nice?

I’m travelling a lot this fall, and while I enjoy visiting other cities, I am also running a little low on patience. I feel equal parts guilty and gratified about what I did in the airport a few weeks ago.

I had a connecting flight in Minneapolis, an airport with an efficient system of electric carts to transport people with disabilities from gate to gate. Aboard one such vehicle with a friendly driver and a woman with crutches whose right leg was encased in a large black brace, we made slow progress through a crowded terminal. People either didn’t know or didn’t care that our cart was trying to pass them.

charlotte-airport-electric-shuttle-cart_mediumPausing yet again because the masses of people swimming upstream did not respond to her repeated calls of “Excuse me!” the driver shook her head. As we stalled, a tall, white man with curly brown hair walked toward us. He spread his arms wide and leaned over in front of me, violating my personal space.

“Hey, hey, how do I get in on this?” he asked with a snarky smile, waving his hand to indicate the cart. Tired and in pain, I snapped. “Cut off your leg,” I said flatly, looking him in the eye. “That’s what I did.” Then the driver broke through the crowd and I lost sight of the man just as his face registered surprise.

I swear I didn’t plan to say that. It just slipped out. And I feel bad about it… but also good.

I believe that educating uniformed and insensitive people is a far better tactic than sinking to the level of those who think they are clever when they make such unfunny “jokes.” And I typically do try to offer a constructive comment or (if I can manage it) a bit of self-deprecating humor. Whether I want to or not, I represent the identity category of people with disabilities, and I hope to leave a positive impression with strangers, even when I am annoyed or hurt by their insensitivity.

And yet I can’t bring myself to regret my quip. The man was out of line. While I was rude, the insult was fairly mild, and my statement was also accurate (I am an above-knee amputee). I didn’t say anything obscene or make any crude hand gestures. Instead, I asserted myself to indicate that I didn’t appreciate his humor.

I shared this story with a number of friends, all of whom thought my response was spot on. But it nags at me, sparking feelings of guilt over my sharp reply and the possibility that I angered the man, leaving him with a negative view of disabled people. Moreover, I can’t help but consider the gender dynamics of the situation and ask whether he would have felt entitled to make such a “joke” to cart full of men. I seriously doubt it.

I’ve tried to conjure an appropriate response to his intrusive, thoughtless statement, made on the fly, necessitating super-quick decision making. I suppose the defenders of civility would point out that he probably didn’t intend to be unkind or to make fun of my need for a ride. But he clearly meant to call attention to the cart. To what end?

I can’t know what he intended. But I know how his actions made me feel—embarrassed, annoyed, resentful—and then just a little bit proud of myself for pushing back.

One thought on “Must I always be nice?

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