By Sorayda Rivera
Student Life Editor
Graphic by Mary Mone
In March 2019, I was traveling to Boston, Massachusetts, for a business trip. Accompanying me on this trip was my friend/aide, and my 411 lb powered wheelchair. Traveling isn’t always the easiest when you have Spinal Muscular Atrophy and a heavy powerchair. Still, I decided a long time ago I would let nothing get in my way of living a full and “normal” life.
When we arrived at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to check in and get our boarding passes, the airline staff found themselves scrambling and had no idea what to do with me or my chair. Apparently, the company that made my arrangements didn’t disclose to the airlines that I would be traveling with my very heavy powerchair. Everyone was making phone calls and figuring out what to do, and it was a hectic scene. By the way, all of this was happening at 6 a.m., and boarding started at 7:15 a.m. It feels super weird when important places nowadays do not have the proper accommodations for people with disabilities; deep down, it makes me feel kind of unwelcome.
After about 20 minutes, they sent a manager out to assist us with my needs and to see we got on the plane safely. She walked over to us, completely ignored me, and she began asking my friend questions about my needs. I kindly spoke up, and I explained to her what my chair batteries are, my chair’s weight and all of the essential details. The manager continued to ignore my existence and proceeded to ask my friend more questions about me that I only knew the answer to.
At that point, I had enough, and in a very kind but stern voice, I let her know that I was the one she needed to speak to about things that concern me. I also advised her that just because I can’t walk doesn’t mean that I can’t speak for myself. She was astonished at my reaction, and then she gave me a look of pity. It is very frustrating as an adult with a disability to be treated like a child by non-disabled people.
There is a word to describe this manager’s behavior, and that word is ableist. Ableism is a newer term not many people talk about, but it holds a lot of importance in the fight against discriminating against people with disabilities. Webster’s Dictionary says ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities. I do believe some people will unknowingly act ableist toward someone with a disability. I used to let these situations bother me but now what I do is try to educate.
For many years growing up, I experienced people being ableist toward me all of the time. I figured this behavior of others toward me was just how it was supposed to be. I have had people pat me on the head like I was a dog. I’ve been called names like Speedy Gonzales, Hot Wheels or Taxi. Or my favorite is when someone asks me about my disability, and after I tell them, they reply with an “I’m sorry” and a sad face. What they are sorry about is still a mystery to me.
Things like this have been happening to disabled individuals for years, but no one ever talked about it because it didn’t really have a name. For me, the benefit of these experiences was that I grew a thicker skin and more patience. However, this is not what life for disabled people should look like. We shouldn’t have to go through life being excluded or looked down upon.
The fantastic thing is these days, we live in a more “woke” society. People are starting to wake up to the fact that people with disabilities are just people too. We want you to treat us like you would treat any other person. You don’t need to be intimidated or scared of us just because we use mobility devices or look different.