Dear Ableism: It’s Not Me. It’s Really, Really You

Daniel Lobo
Daniel Lobo

By Cheryl Green

Dear ableism,

We’re not supposed to name names. You know, out of respect and all. It’s painful to be publicly embarrassed! But this time I have to. You, ableism, are Danny, the Alaska Airlines manager at the Chicago-O’Hare airport who refused to open the door to the jetway for my friends after the plane had boarded. Oh, and by the way, they were only late to the gate because their airport had refused to have the tiny wheelchair that fits down the plane’s aisles ready for them.

You are the employee who looked up my friend’s skirt as you lifted her from the aisle wheelchair into her seat on the plane.

Most recently, you are the Tulsa airport with no one on staff who knows how to start the wheelchair-accessible van because “no one ever uses it.”

You are the Hilton Garden Inn at the Tulsa airport that does not own an accessible van for your airport shuttle service, and defends yourself publicly on Twitter when criticized because “no one’s ever requested it before.”

In 2015, we’re gearing up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Air Carriers Access Act, a less-widely known but exceedingly important law, is having its 29th birthday. These laws are intended to protect disabled citizens from discrimination. Let’s celebrate! Right?

See, if you’re like me and can walk onto an airplane, run through the airport if you get delayed, or get yourself into any type of ground vehicle, it can be hard to understand why not everyone celebrates these anniversaries as a sign that disability discrimination is solved. It hasn’t been. If you think that not knowing how to turn on the accessible van for one customer is an isolated case, guess again. If you think that people refuse to adequately serve only customers with physical disabilities and wheelchairs, guess again on that point too. It happened to me.

Ableism, you removed me from an airplane once when the accommodations request I made for my invisible disability was denied. I only needed to pre-board; the combination of dizziness, vision dysfunction, anxiety, proprioception difficulties, poor balance, being a slow walker, and feeling intolerant of strangers telling me to hurry up made boarding difficult. But American Airlines — and you, ableism — didn’t let me pre-board. I freaked out and curled into a silent ball when I did get to my seat. I knew if I spoke, I would scream. So I refused to talk to the flight attendant who kept sitting on my armrest and putting her arm around me (um, no thank you, too close).

The pilot decided I posed a safety hazard. I deplaned while an attendant yelled to the other passengers that I was leaving by choice! By choice, I tell you. The airline took my complaint a couple times and denied wrongdoing because the gate staff “made a mistake” when they “forgot” to let me pre-board. Hi — that’s admitting wrongdoing. Apparently to them, if you violate someone’s federal rights by mistake, it doesn’t count. I took it to the Department of Justice. American Airlines got a letter from the DOJ with a little slap on the wrist for the violation of my federal right to pre-board, and I was content. It wasn’t the worst violation that could happen to me.

That wasn’t the case recently with my friend who uses a power wheelchair. Remember when you paid her a visit, ableism? And this is only on her most recent trip, from Portland, Oregon to Tulsa, Oklahoma. I won’t even get to the details about Danny, the Alaska Airlines manager at O’Hare, in this post. Since you, ableism, have patently refused to sit quietly and listen to all of the details of her story, I’ll do you a solid and put them together in one place. Read at your leisure.

Caitlin called the Tulsa Hilton Garden Inn Airport about 24 hours in advance to request an accessible shuttle pickup from the airport to the hotel. Their website states they have complimentary shuttle service from the airport. It’s a five-minute walk down an unlit service road to the Inn if you skip the shuttle, and she was to arrive after dark. Having her dog, her bags, and her companion Toshio with her, a shuttle seemed in order after a long day of flying.

Here’s the thing about being in compliance with the ADA: If a non-disabled customer has the freedom to choose a 1/4-mile shuttle ride instead of a walk, then a disabled customer deserves the same freedom of choice. And gets it, not just deserves it. Because it’s the law. More importantly, there is the basic premise that humans are humans, whether those humans walk on legs or by any other means. Denying even one customer the opportunity to choose and utilize a shuttle safely and without being mocked, humiliated, or harassed is what we call illegal. Ableism, you’re probably familiar with the idea.

Caitlin was told on the phone that the Hilton Garden Inn doesn’t have an accessible vehicle, and that they’ve never had one requested. Caitlin took to Twitter from March 10–12, calling out these actions as illegal — like they are. The hotel staff became defensive and angry that she would even insinuate that it’s illegal or that she, one person, deserved this special treatment. Even though in 2010, Hilton Worldwide lost a lawsuit about inaccessibility and was required to provide accessible rooms.

Oh yeah, sorry. Accessible rooms: check. Apparently it doesn’t matter if people can actually get to these accessible rooms.

The airport parking folks agreed to take on the shuttling task as a courtesy since they had an accessible van. So Caitlin’s partner, Andrew, reserved it by phone before Caitlin and Toshio got to Tulsa. But upon their arrival, the van wouldn’t start. (It turns out they have a solenoid electric starter, which no one knew how to use. I suppose it isn’t required to train evening staff in how to operate all the vehicles in the fleet, only the “normal” ones.) Carolyn Harper, the manager there, told me by phone the next day that it’s really the Hilton Garden Inn’s fault for not having their accessible vehicle. And she humiliated me, insinuated I was lying, refused to answer some of my questions, raised her voice, and rushed me off the phone.

So, ableism, here is the message that we keep trying to get across and that you refuse to listen to.

As an airport or public institution, it is your fault for not being able to provide equivalent and accessible service to even one disabled guest. An airport is a public accommodation, meaning anyone in the public should be able to use it. That is the point of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It passed 25 years ago. You are noncompliant and yet somehow angry with us for pointing that out.

The evening cashier, Kenneth, laughed at Caitlin. He also told me on the phone later that it was all OK in the end because she took her own vehicle to the hotel. When I pressed him for details, he told me, “You know, it’s a handicapped vehicle that’s electric.” I assured him that she was given no vehicle, that what she uses is called a “wheelchair,” and that if she were to hit a pothole on an unlit road, she would fall on her face and get injured. He suggested that perhaps they should have accompanied her in their motorized cart because it has lights. Um, you think?

Between Caitlin, Andrew, Toshio, and me, we will be working with professionals in the field of accessibility law to start a DOJ investigation into this disability discrimination. Because it is so obvious that federal laws were violated. My biggest fear is that we will spend so much time working at the Tulsa airport and Hilton Garden Inn that we won’t get to Danny from O’Hare, or the man who looked up Caitlin’s skirt as he transferred her onto her seat with absolutely no dignity or emotional safety.

So here’s the thing, ableism. You are a hideous, insidious hell. You hide yourself very well from most of the non-disabled public, who have the ultimate luxury of ignoring you even though stories like this happen every day of the year. Well, we are not ignoring you. We are not worried about your embarrassment when you are called out on Twitter, the phone, a blog, or anywhere else.

It is not our burden, as disabled people, to coddle you and protect your right to exist freely. If we are busy protecting you, there is no one to protect us. Because clearly, despite the many enormous gains we have made in the U.S. since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carriers Access Act, ableism, you are still loud and strong. And so we will just have to keep getting louder ourselves.