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To Airline Employees, From a Person Who Doesn't Look Disabled

Dear gate agents and flight attendants,

I’m one of those passengers who “shouldn’t” be in the pre-board line.

You know the ones.

I’m dressed nicely and I have makeup on; I appear healthy and able-bodied. I don’t use a wheelchair. I’m young. I sometimes sit on the floor and stretch. Aside from my pillow and sometimes my cane and wrist braces, there is not much evidence of why I’m there. According to popular opinion, I don’t look disabled.

You want to do your job well, and part of that is accommodating people with disabilities. But often, when I request a pre-board pass, you look at me like maybe I’m cheating, like maybe I learned a trick somewhere just to get a better seat or not wait in line. Maybe you think I’m smug or even entitled. Sometimes you question if I need the pre-board pass on the basis of disability, right after you sweetly, wordlessly hand one to the woman in front of me – the soft-spoken, grey-haired, hunched-over one using her cane.

I have learned to expect to be pre-judged for pre-boarding, but that hasn’t made me feel any better when it happens. I try not to think about the other healthy-appearing disabled people who have stopped asking for accommodations when they fly, who now try instead to blend in – to reduce stigma and the possible trauma of an error of assumption and ensuing judgment.

We hear stories like this all the time about young-, healthy-, able-appearing people who have disabled placards in their cars and receive nasty stares, notes, and even comments of disdain and judgment. But it doesn’t just happen when people drive. It happens when we fly, too, when we can’t carry our disabled placards around our necks. Maybe we should. Would that help?

I’m hurting. I’m doing everything I can to appear healthy. If I showed up looking how I actually feel, you might not even let me on the plane. Besides, I still want to look good on the outside; it helps me feel more confident. I want you to know that I wish I felt as good as I appear, and I would gladly trade a healthy body for the one I have.

Dear flight attendants,

I do not like boarding the plane before everyone else. I don’t like that it calls attention to me and means I will be on the plane longer. I fear I’ll be asked to give my seat to someone who fits the disabled image better than me, as if looking at me fills the criteria for that judgment. There’s no way you could know the debilitating pain I try to endure every moment just by looking at me.

I always sit in an aisle seat near the front of the plane so I can move my legs more easily during the flight. When I can, I sit in the very front row so I can stretch without having to get up so often. On shorter flights, I sometimes even treat myself to the front row window seat because I can squeeze past my neighbors to stretch without bothering them as much. How I miss sitting by the window all the time!

I’m also one of those passengers who requests a can (not just a cup) of orange juice or water multiple times during the flight. I see the disdain on your face, and I hear it in your pert responses. I wish I could tell you with one glance that I need those extra drinks because without them I could become a healthcare emergency mid-flight. I wish I could tell you that I need those drinks to take my pain pills, and so my joints are lubricated enough to get off the plane when we land. I wish I could tell you with one blink that I miss the days when I would purposefully drink very little so I would not have to get up to pee. I wish I could tell you these things every time you give me that “look” – you know the one.

I try so very hard to be gracious, because I know you experience a lot of rude people. But the truth is that flying is now one of my least favorite things. It causes my pain and fatigue to grow exponentially, along with my fear of the germs that could attack my weak immune system and send me to the hospital. Flying somewhere used to be a treat; now it is a punishment that takes days or more to recover from.

Attendants, you have a lot to respond to at work. The babies who cry when their ears pop, people who go into a rage when they have to check a carry-on bag last minute, people who are traveling to funerals, children traveling without guardians, people who arrive drunk or with a contagious flu, the pilots who need their bathroom breaks. You probably also think about home and when you will return to your own bed.

I applaud you for the multi-tasking you do so well, and I understand I am just one more demand of your complicated job. Yet I hope this letter helps shed light on some thoughts that go on in the minds of many young, able-appearing people with disabilities who fly.

For the times you’ve seen my pain and offered a little something extra, thank you. For the times you have responded with grace even when I am too tired to give you the smile and thanks you deserve, thank you. And for reading this letter, thank you.

Follow this journey on Being Charis.

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