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.
Pausing 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.