“I’m not comfortable with those people,” she said.
All I could get out of my mouth was, “Excuse me?”
Her discomfort was terribly obvious. She refused to make eye contact with me, barely glancing in my direction once or twice, but that was all. She stood there looking rather pathetic, pleading with my co-worker to help her instead.
When my eyes started to burn, I knew it was time for me to make my exit.
People have said some stupid crap to me. Retail and restaurant employees often choose to speak to whoever is accompanying me rather than me when I’m out and about. I’ve even had complete strangers get on their knees in the middle of a mall to pray for my healing, but I’ve never had someone outright refuse to speak to me because I’m sitting in a wheelchair. I was shocked.
In the moment, I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. I knew it was some strange combination of indignant, livid, and hurt, but all I could say to my boss through my tears was, “I know I shouldn’t take it personally. It’s her problem, not mine. It just hurts my heart.” She told me to take whatever time I needed to get composed, so I found a private spot and called Bryan.
“I’m so sorry, Al.” Bryan’s always good for an apology, even when it’s not his fault. After I blubbered my way through the whole story and received plenty of coddling, he switched into cheerleader mode.
“You need to go back inside and talk to your boss. Someone needs to set that lady straight. If she’d refused help from someone based on skin color, gender, or anything else, she’d have gotten an earful. This is no different.”
There he goes, being practical like usual.
I have no problem putting my finger on discrimination and prejudice when they’re directed at someone else; it’s harder to see it for what it is, though, when it’s me. But he was right. This was the big, ugly face of discrimination. I know that I face passive forms of discrimination almost every day – the checkout counter is too high, there’s no accessible entrance, there’s no accessible restroom, the view from the accessible seating is terrible and limited…the list goes on, but it’s rarely blatant.
Blatant is exactly the right word for what happened here. Someone had looked right at me and said, “You’re different, and therefore, I don’t like you. Stay away from me.”
I was eventually able to compose myself, and by the end of the day, I was joking with co-workers about who would wring her neck first, but it’s really no laughing matter. When we allow passive discrimination of any kind, whether it’s based on skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or disability, we send the message that hate is ok, as long as it’s quiet.
If I’d had my wits about me when this woman, who must not have had a single flaw to be so picky, showed such obvious hate to me, I would have told her that people like her keep the world divided. People like her are responsible for exclusion, closed mindedness, and for the fact that the recent progress in marriage equality even has to be news!
The next time you think to yourself, “We’re past all that discrimination stuff. What are people whining about?” please, remember this story.