Not “Disabled Enough”: Nathalie Allport-Grantham Goes to Stansted Airport

This happened just after New Year’s, and I’m just hearing about it now. Happy New Year to Nathalie Allport-Grantham, who experienced a particularly annoying variation of discrimination  due to  not looking “disabled enough” to the staff at the Stansted airport in the UK.

Image on "Airport" written in lights in block letters on a black background. Keyword: Allport-Grantham

Image Description: “Airport” in block letters, in lights, against a black background.

Content Note: Ableism, not “disabled enough”, discrimination by airlines, non-apology

“But You Don’t Look Sick”

For those of you who haven’t read thoughts on this before (by me or by other writers in the disability community, because not looking “disabled enough” is unfortunately a common experience among disabled people), here’s the breakdown:  There’s this perception out there, held mostly by non-disabled people, that if someone doesn’t have some sort of sign of a physical disability (like, they’re using a mobility aid or there’s some bodily sign of disability), they’re not really disabled. It’s outright wrong, and offensive enough on its own, but people tend to rub salt in the wound by asking for (sometimes demanding), when they’ve no authority to do so, proof of disability if there’s some sort of disability accommodation involved.

Like when Kanye West sent his staff into the audience to check that audience members that weren’t standing during his concert when he demanded they do so actually couldn’t stand.

(No disability accommodation involved there; Kanye just wanted everyone to stand while he was singing.)

Underlying this desire to “check” is an assumption that a person who says they’re disabled but doesn’t look “disabled enough” is lying; it leads to behaviour like people leaving notes that say “FAKER” by disabled parking passes. There are a lot of people out there who like to act as self-appointed assessors of degree of disability and policers of “fakers”. Some of them take it upon themselves to accordingly mete out justice.

It’s not the public’s role to do any of that. When a non-disabled person on the street assumes that they have the power and the right to assess disability and its degree, and therefore eligibility or ineligibility for a support (and to demand “proof” if a person doesn’t seem disabled to them) is indicative of deep and insidious ableism. The non-disabled person’s belief that they have power over disabled people is clearly on display.

Nathalie Allport-Grantham, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Marfan Syndrome, and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and uses a wheelchair part-time, experienced an extreme example of this in Stansted Airport in the UK.

It was truly unacceptable – yet another sign of how the airline industry in general needs to get its act together when it comes to service for its disabled customers.

Nathalie Allport-Grantham and Stansted Airport

Nathalie Allport-Grantham uses a wheelchair part-time, but opted not to bring one on her trip out of Stansted Airport, as she was told that the airport could provide one. This service proved less than reliable, but the real trouble started when she and her boyfriend tried to check in at the gate for their flight with Ryanair. She was not in the wheelchair at the time; she’d had to walk to the gate from a nearby lounge, because the staff in the lounge that had taken the airport wheelchair and promised to bring it back and didn’t.)

As Allport-Grantham told The Independent, the woman at the gate decided that she didn’t need help.

“…I told the lady on duty that I had booked special assistance and needed help with my bags and to get on the aircraft.

“She looked at me and said, ‘If you want someone to carry your bags, you’ll have to pay £50.’

“I told her I had pre-booked disability assistance and I need help getting onto the aircraft.

“She said, ‘I’m actually waiting for someone who cannot walk, if you want to get on the plane I suggest you queue up like everyone else. If you don’t want to carry your bag, it’s £50 to have it put in the hold.’

“The person she was waiting for was me, but she expected someone who looked more ‘disabled’ than I do.

“Then she said loudly, in earshot of everyone at the gate: ‘I’ve got disabled people to help and you are wasting my time.’ Everyone was staring. It was humiliating.”

Now, you can argue that the woman at the gate was just doing her job as instructed – she’d presumably been told to look for a person who was much less physically mobile. However, there are a couple of issues with this.

Nathalie Allport-Grantham, Assumptions, and Accommodations Denied

The woman at the  may just have been doing her job, yes. But her perception that just because Allport-Grantham was more mobile than she’d either been explicitly told or that she’d assumed based on given information led her to deny the young woman accommodations to which she was entitled. As I touched on earlier, her behaviour isn’t surprising, given what else Allport-Grantham experienced at the hands of “disability services” at Stansted Airport that day:

  • No lifts available; she was told that staff would have to help her up the stairs into the plane.
  • After checking in at the airport, her boyfriend wheeled her to a lounge in a wheelchair that the airport provided. She transferred into a more comfortable seat, and a staff member took the wheelchair, promising to return it. He never did. It was from here that she had to walk to the gate, five minutes away.
  • She sat on the runway by the plane in an airport wheelchair for ten minutes in the rain before she could get assistance to get on the plane.

But that’s not really the point.

Obviously there are problems with disability services in general that need addressing, but the woman’s behaviour at the gate is especially problematic, as it’s indicative of the deep ableism I talked about earlier. I used a wheelchair on and off for a year after I got out of stroke rehabilitation. Mostly I could get around with my cane, but walking for long distances was very tiring, and it was nice to have the option, on days when my fatigue level was high (or when I wanted to keep it from getting too high too quickly) to be able to use my chair. People with many types of disabilities make use of a wheelchair for exactly the same reasons – you might never see them use a mobility aid, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t use one.

It must have been so frustrating to be in Allport-Grantham’s situation, to have to stay polite after explaining twice that she’d pre-arranged for help to be available, when the person she was talking to  had obviously decided was she wasn’t “disabled enough”  to receive support (even though that’s not her right.)  It must have been so difficult to fight anyway despite the fatigue caused by having to walk to the gate from the lounge on top of the stress of having a plane to catch, and the general stress of travel…,

And to have the woman at the refuse to even investigate whether Allport-Grantham was even right, so sure that she was dealing with a “faker” that she didn’t even ask for her name, so that she could see if Allport-Grantham was actually who she claimed to be…it must have been infuriating, especially in light of the fact that this exact action eventually settled the matter: another staff member stepped in, noticing Allport-Grantham’s tears, checked her name against a list of people who had requested disability services, and verified that she was indeed the person they were waiting for.

Such a simple way to deal with the issue, but so much more effective than saying to a passenger (my paraphrase), “Step aside, faker. You’re wasting my time.” But the woman at the gate’s assumption that Natalie Allport-Grantham was faking a disability so coloured her attitude toward her that she couldn’t be bothered to do even the barest minimum to check a customer’s story.

You’re welcome to argue with me over whether this is ableism, but you can’t deny that it’s horrible customer service.

Meet Me at Camera Three, Stansted Airport

I’ve worked a lot of difference customer service jobs – grocery cashier, ice cream scooper, snack bar attendant in a movie theatre, a brief stint as a cashier in drug store right before my stroke, customer service manager for a website company, customer service for a government agency…

The best advice that I got was when I worked in the grocery store, when my boss once told me that the money that the customers spent in the store was money that went into paying my wages, so it literally paid to keep them happy.

I’m proud of the customer service skills that I’ve developed – and if I was a businessperson who had someone on my staff who:

  • Took a wheelchair that the company provided to a customer, promised to return it, and then didn’t
  • Left a customer sitting in their wheelchair in the rain for ten minutes while luggage was loaded onto the plane
  • Told a customer, any customer, that they were wasting our time,

…there’d have to be a damn good reason for it.

Every time I hear of a story like this, I think not only of the effect on the disabled person involved, but of how short-sighted the business is being.

(Sidebar: It’s hard to know in this case who’s ultimately the most short-sighted, because several organizations are involved: Ryanair presumably employs the woman at the gate, “wheelchair services” within Stansted Airport are provided by a company called Omniserv, which Stansted Airport books with the airlines and the airlines pay for. But Stansted is still responsible for how the services are carried out.)

I don’t quite get it, but given these things, and given the fact that Ryanair’s position on all this was to push it on you, and your position was to push it on Omniserv

If I was still using my wheelchair, instead of driving a little out of my way to fly out of Stansted Airport because of your excellent services for disabled people, I’d rather drive a lot out my way to fly out of an airport where:

  • Omniserv didn’t handle wheelchairs
  • I could get to my destination without having to fly Ryanair
  • Staff have disability sensitivity training (this may not exist; there sure doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence for it.)

Bottom line? You wouldn’t get my business. Businesses that make disabled people feel subhuman don’t get my money, and other disabled people get told why. I usually just buy a snack and a magazine in the airport while I’m waiting for a flight, but I guarantee that lots of disabled passengers spend a lot more than that.

Do you want our business or not?

By now, hopefully someone involved in this Stansted Airport clusterfuck has issued Nathalie Allport-Grantham a real apology, instead of the “pass the buck” non-apology she was offered earlier in the month.

If not, someone needs to get on it – this isn’t that difficult.

Disabled Parking Permits and the Dangers of Assumptions

This post is going to be preaching to the choir for most of the people who read this blog. Maybe you can pass the link along to someone who insists on making assumptions about people who park a vehicle with the disabled parking permit visible in the window, in a disabled parking spot.

Content Note: Ableism, assumptions, disability policing

Disabled parking tag with note that says "FAKER" attached to it. Keyword: disabled parking permit

Image Description: Disabled parking tag with note that says “FAKER” attached to it.

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My thoughts on this are spurred by a post that I shared on the Facebook page, by a woman with who parked in a disabled parking spot, using the disabled parking permit that had been issued to her, and came back to find a note attached to it that said “FAKER”.

A Brief Lesson About Disabled Parking Permits

In case anyone’s unclear on this, let’s go through when you can’t park in a disabled parking spot (Ontario Regulations):

When you don’t have a disabled parking permit displayed, and you’re going to be in the store for “just 5 minutes”

When you do have a permit displayed, and you’re going to be in the store for any amount of time and the person to whom the disabled parking permit was issued is not in the car.

When you do have a disabled parking permit, you’re going to be in the store for any amount of time, the person to whom the disabled parking permit was issued *is* in the car, but won’t be going into the store. If the disabled person is just going to sit in the car in the disabled parking spot, they’re taking up the spot and pushing out a disabled person that might actually intend to go into the store. It’s a misuse of the permit.

Here’s when you can park in a disabled parking spot: You are the disabled person to whom the permit was issued, or the person to whom the permit was issued is in the vehicle, and will be going into the store.

The Disabled Parking Permit and Assumptions

Abuse of the disabled parking permit is definitely annoying. When I see a car parked in a disabled parking spot, I check to see if there’s a permit displayed on the dashboard. But what’s even more annoying is when people:

  1. Make the assumption that a person who doesn’t “look disabled” enough to have a disabled parking permit assume that a person isn’t entitled to it and must be scamming the system.
  2. Take it upon themselves to police people who they assume aren’t “disabled” enough to have a disabled parking permit.

I don’t think that the average person understands that for many, many disabled people, a day where they walk around town doing errands or having lunch and an afternoon out with friends means three or four days of recovery where they have to use a wheelchair. Even after a decade of being able to walk without a cane inside, and even outside for short distances depending on the season and weather, a day of walking without my cane at the Toronto Zoo left me so exhausted that I was stunned.

It’d be easy to assume, catching a disabled person after a few days of rest and recovery, that perhaps the disabled permit on the dashboard isn’t necessary. Someone might assume that the person gets around that easily all the time, and become suspicious: How is that person disabled? Did he or she scam the system? The trouble with that assumption is that it doesn’t take into account that perhaps that person is so exhausted and in so much pain that the parking permit is vital.

The other trouble with that assumption is the second one that often flows from it, that having identified disability parking permit “fraud”, it’s okay for citizens to deal with it themselves.

Disabled Parking Permit “Fraud”: Citizens Policing Citizens

I don’t understand is how it’s anyone’s business, outside of the office that issues the disabled parking permit, whether a person is “deserving” of a permit or not. The assumption that I’d rather make is that the permit is on the car, someone thought they should have it, whether it looks to me at the moment like they should or not –

And it’s not my job to police people!

It’s not Joe Public’s job, either. It’s none of his business. And I’d really like to know where people got the idea that it was. The idea that disabled people should be required to prove to just anyone on the street on  demand whether they’re “disabled enough” to receive a service is particularly insidious ableism, and a real measuring stick of how far we *haven’t* come. When your typical person on the street still feels entitled to that sort of power over disabled people, that’s a real concern.

I remember writing something like that before, so I went back over my posts for the past year. I found what I was looking for in a post about Kanye West. He refused to continue singing unless everyone was standing up at a concert, and when some people in wheelchairs didn’t stand up (because they couldn’t) he sent staff to make sure that they couldn’t. I wrote:

“There are very few people to whom I have to prove that I’m disabled. They are service providers that need proof of disability so that I can start/keep receiving some sort of service. I’m not crazy about this, but it’s part of life, it’s fairly infrequent, and I deal with it. I do not have to prove that I’m disabled to a person on the street, another disabled person, or anyone else that I don’t want to.”

You don’t have to either. Spread the word.