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 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.
(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.)
“…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.