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.

Michelle Sutton, Autism and Self-Diagnosis

In 2014, Jerry Seinfeld, in an interview with Brian Williams, said, “I think – on a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum.”

Asked what made him think that, he said, “You’re never paying attention to the right things. Basic social engagement is a struggle. I’m very literal; when people talk to me and they use expressions, sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying. But I don’t see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset.”

Content Note: Self-Diagnosis, Support/Services Eligibility

Jerry Seinfeld at a premiere, waving to the camera with one arm while his other hand is around his wife Jessica's waist. Keyword: Michelle Sutton
Jerry Seinfeld
“Bee Movie” LA Premiere
Mann’s Village Theater
Westwood, CA
October 28, 2007
©2007 Kathy Hutchins / Hutchins Photo

Image Description: Jerry Seinfeld at a premiere, waving to the camera with one arm while his other hand is around his wife Jessica’s waist.

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The Autism Community Reacts

I remember anger from the autism community at his comments, like Kim Stagliano’s reaction, Ginger Taylor’s article (I remember this one specifically), and this post from Autism Daddy’s blog.

I don’t remember picking up on this distinction: The people who felt most negatively about Seinfeld self-diagnosing himself seemed to be parents. Autistics like John Elder Robison seemed more positive, encouraging the autism community to welcome Seinfeld. Lots of excellent points in his article.

But I don’t remember reading it in 2014. I don’t much positive reaction at all to Seinfeld’s comments. Maybe that’s why this enthusiastic post by Michelle Sutton about how she self-identifies as autistic confused me so much initially. I didn’t think that self-diagnosis was something was accepted or encouraged by any disability community.

How Would Michelle Sutton React to My Self-Identification Process?

To be fair, I’ve never really heard someone self-identify (the term that Sutton prefers to self-diagnosis) as a stroke survivor. For those that insist on self-identifying as being clinically depressed or having obsessive-compulsive disorder (two things with which doctors have diagnosed me), I tend to shift the conversation onto feelings and away from labels. Something about the person’s feelings made them self-identify that way, regardless of whether the self-identification is accurate or not. Or whether I believe it’s not. I’m often skeptical when people say things like, “I’m really depressed” or are convinced that they have OCD because they wash their hands a lot, but we can connect on feelings.

I’ve long figured, just from my own research and experience, that I have Attention Deficit Disorder. No one explored the possibility when I was a kid (I think likely because my grades were good). But as an adult, I can see ADD traits in myself, both now and when I was a kid:

  • Constantly losing things
  • Forgetting appointments
  • Getting and staying organized
  • A lot of problems with daytime sleepiness

The ADD assessment isn’t covered by Ontario’s health plan and is very expensive (not a reason I actively avoid trying to get a medical diagnosis, as Michelle Sutton does, but certainly a reason for why getting one isn’t possible right now.) I’ve told people that I suspect that I have ADD and will talk about the reasons why. But I don’t self-identify with it. It doesn’t feel right to me.

I can imagine why Michelle Sutton might tell me that I’m misguided, and I might talk with her about how her anti-psychiatry stance and “I’m being defiant” doesn’t work for me. And for me, ultimately, I’d rather have a doctor’s diagnosis, but I admit to bias – having worked in social services, I know that no diagnosis means no support services.

But even if it turns out that Michelle Sutton isn’t autistic beyond her self-identification, and I’m not suggesting she isn’t, if she’s found ways through her research and her connections with the autistic community to become more comfortable with all aspects of herself, and the community itself is supportive, who am I to judge?

I don’t talk with other people who have ADD…but I read some blogs on a regular basis, and I know that adopting some of the strategies that people use to stay organized have helped me to become more organized and less stressed out about losing things all the time. So even if I don’t have ADD, who’s harmed if I use the strategies and they make my life easier? No one that I can see.

I’ll have to do some more thinking about this. In the meantime, I’m glad that I read this blog of Michelle Sutton’s. At the very least it corrected some of my  erroneous thinking about the autistic community’s stance on self-diagnosis. I will put her blog on the list that will go on this site’s blogroll (when I get time to put it up!)

ETA: Seinfeld later backtracked on his comments and said that he wasn’t on the autism spectrum

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Intellectual Developmental Disorder and the DSM-V

Graphic of a man's head, clear; the brain is visible, each of its sections a different colour. Keyword: intellectual developmental disorder

Image Description: Graphic of a man’s head, clear; the brain is visible, each of its sections a different colour.

The deadline for public input on revised diagnostic criteria for autism in the DSM-V is June 15th. There’s been a lot of controversy on this, so be sure that you’re well-informed and that you voice your opinion about any of your concerns. See this blog post for a starting point on where to research what’s been going on with controversy

Also bear in mind that there’s been controversy over the revised diagnostic criteria for mental retardation, starting with renaming it Intellectual Developmental Disorder.

Yes, “Mental Retardation” is Diagnostic Criteria

And bravo to the American Psychiatric Association for finally moving away from it in the DSM-V.  Service providers in Canada and the US have been using the less emotionally-loaded “intellectual disability” for at least as long as I’ve been involved with developmental services, and the US government has recently made a commitment to use “intellectual disability” in its disability legislation. It’s going to be much easier to get people to stop using “retard” and “retarded” in reference to people with disabilities when there’s no clinical term with the word “retard” in it to give those slurs any false air of legitimacy. Like most things, however, this particular redefinition of diagnostic criteria isn’t that simple:

  • “Mental retardation” changes to “intellectual developmental disorder” (as I mentioned).
  • The criterion that the disability begin before age 18 disappears, replaced by one that the disability begin “during the developmental period”.
  • The IQ criterion, now 70 or under, becomes more flexible, shifting the focus more to  the individual’s level of adaptive functioning.

“Intellectual Developmental Disorder” Doesn’t Roll off the Tongue…

Advocates at organizations such as The Arc and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities fear the DSM-V’s use of “intellectual developmental disorder” and the departure from the more standard “intellectual disability” will confuse people. I do agree that this could potentially happen. However,  it’s not like the official diagnostic term hasn’t differed from the everyday language for years.  I have never in my career, unless I was speaking specifically in clinical terms regarding the official DSM diagnosis with a colleague who understood my context, spoken about “mental retardation” in my work. I use “intellectual disability” with the people I support, with their families, and, the overwhelming majority of the time, with colleagues.  I probably still will, unless a superior directed  me to use “intellectual developmental disorder”. I doubt I’ll be alone.

Now for the Famous “That Being Said…”

I’m fascinated by the “developmental” element in “intellectual developmental disorder”, particularly in light of the fact that there will be more flexibility around the IQ standard. A lot can happen to a child before age 18. They may not be born with a condition that traditionally causes an intellectual disability, but what if a traumatic brain injury caused by a car accident leaves a teen with the severe deficits in adaptive functioning that a teen with an intellectual disability might experience? Or impairs ability to perform on an IQ test to the point where it looks as if the teen’s IQ has suffered a drop into the zone associated with intellectual developmental disorder? The developmental element provides a way to assist clinicians to differentiate between what is truly an  intellectual developmental disorder and what disabilities require a different diagnosis and perhaps more appropriate treatment and supports.

Because Diagnosis Determines Supports

For a long time, Ontario’s definition of developmental disability (often used interchangeably with “intellectual disability” in the province) was IQ-bound (as is the DSM-IV’s diagnostic criteria for mental retardation).  I’ve seen how this can make decisions tricky about who gets and doesn’t get support within the developmental services sector, particularly for people with an IQ in the low 70s. People in this “borderline” zone got cut from services that they needed because of a couple of IQ points.

Watching how the IQ criterion sometimes prevented people from getting services that they need, creating more cracks through which people could fall, was very frustrating for me and for others in social services. Knowing that Ontario’s definition of developmental disability is now less IQ-bound and more skills-based is a relief. I was relieved the see the APA making a similar shift in its proposed diagnostic criteria for intellectual developmental disorder. Unfortunately, I haven’t been in a position to get any hard data about how that shift is working for people with developmental disabilities in Ontario, but the move does make intuitive sense to me.

The Bottom Line

I do have concerns:

  • I’d prefer that the APA stay away from the word “disorder”
  • I think that the developmental period in which a person needs to develop the signs of  an Intellectual Developmental Disorder in order to receive the diagnosis needs a description.
  •  I think that diagnosticians are going to want to know how much latitude they have with the IQ criterion, but I assume that they will receive information about that.
We’ll see how this goes.