The day I became disabled….or at least realised it maybe wasn´t such a bad thing to be.
Taxi, a Friday afternoon a few years ago now, on the way to Stanstedt airport.
My wife says,“We should have told them you need a wheelchair.”
I reply, with a sigh.
“But I don’t. I just need their help to avoid too many stairs.”
“And not to have to stand around for too long.”
“Ok”, I concede, “and not to have to stand around for too long.”
The departures hall is vast, but filling up fast, most of the Midlands off for a long weekend in Nice, Warsaw or Madrid. The serried ranks of check in desks of a well-known Irish budget airline stretch into the distance. Only one well-spoken young woman is manning the one open desk. Above her head the neon strip flashes confidently ‘all flights’. The queue is lengthening and there´s thirty to forty equally impatient travelers in front of us, all looking forward to the drink in the bar beyond security that signals the start of the holiday.
The time drags by and each family or couple checking in seems to last an eternity. There´s a sigh of relief as a young man appears at a second desk and logs onto the computer. An already tipsy hen party off to lay waste to Prague (they´re wearing badges) noisily slam into the back of the now maybe two hundred strong queue. Some people have already dragged their bags to stand in front of gate number two. Seeing this the young man smiles, logs off, and swings himself expertly over the luggage belt and with a cheery “someone´ll be along in a minute” starts, with tapes and metal stands, to organize the queue into a very long snake. The passengers move forward at the pace of large luggage being resentfully kicked. The hen party harrumph. Time passes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, with no new desk being opened, generating general murderous intent. We´ve been standing now a half hour. My feet are already beyond aching into burning, the knees are feeling slightly unreliable and I´m avoiding my wife´s gaze.
“This is bad,” she says and goes off to speak to the young man.
“I wonder could you help me please.” (Germans don´t generally speak like this but my wife has lived in England a long time.) “We´re in the queue but my husband can´t stand for long. We requested special assistance.”
“Does he need a wheelchair?”
“Well no, but he can´t walk far so. On the ´phone they said he´d get priority boarding.”
“Priority boarding. Great.” Relieved, he wheels on his heels, his arms swinging like a yardarm, and points to a much smaller queue of people before an equally empty desk. My wife´s about to head off when he suddenly crumples into self doubt.
“I think maybe for disabled you should…wait….” He dexterously creates, spinning poles and stretching tape, a new space for us alone before the third and equally empty desk, “…here.”
“Somebody will be along in a minute.”
We wait. And wait. By now I´m trying to keep my weight evenly distributed between both feet, the stick in my left hand and holding on to my wife´s arm with my right hand. Walking anywhere now is looking like, as they say, a big ask. When the somebody does come she´s not exactly sympathetic.
“You should have gone straight to priority boarding.”
Game as ever, my wife tries….
“We were told….”
“He is disabled, yea?”
“Well no, yes, but…..he does speak.”
Mute with discomfort I kind of wish my wife hadn´t mentioned that but before I can say anything…
“Ok, go and join priority boarding at the security desk.”
She points vaguely to the concourse´s furthest horizon.
“Is there a chance of having a wheelchair now?” my wife asks.
“Well, you can. But you´ll have to wait.”
We hobble off.
It didn´t get better. The final straw came when, after we´d stood a decade or two in the security queue, the security staff insisted, despite my wife´s increasingly tearful protests, that I get myself through the security arch without a stick and without her aid.
And maybe it was at that exact moment, as I painfully shuffled my way through the arch and when anyone who had eyes to see knew that some kind of basic category error had been made, that I knew the person who had made it was me and that I needed to recognize I was disabled and that it really would have been ok to use a wheelchair.
And it was a curiously happy, liberating realization, a self-affirmation, a joyous relief from the feelings of guilt, of a lack of the right stuff, of pluck, or grit, of somehow not having tried enough, of somehow not managing well enough, of making too much of things, of being a bother and a burden to others, of not grinning and bearing it enough, in the end, ultimately of just pretending to have a problem, of being somehow a fraud.
And that of course is the cruelest thing about the connection the present government in Britain and some of the press has made between disability and benefit fraud, that it plays into, reinforces and exploits some of the most treacherous, guilt ridden, self and reality-denying feelings that people made vulnerable by disability and illness are prey to. Compared to that apparently conscious intent, unintentional, thoughtlessly callous behavior by airport staff can´t really be considered that bad.
For details of the plight of the disabled under the present government see…