Recently, while traveling, I found myself engaged in conversation with another traveling educator about the stresses of air travel. The recount of the travel experience that this other traveler shared, made all of mine call back to memory as if they were lazy Sunday morning cups of black coffee and required me to hold back tears for her. I listened. I confirmed, beyond doubt, that her experience was terribly frustrating, sad, hurtful and that it was exceedingly important to share it with as many people as possible. I told her I knew of a great forum for doing just this. A place where I knew that some of the most passionate educators and warriors against injustice frequented with hungry eyes and ears. After a short and gentle persuasion, this fellow traveling educator graciously agreed to contribute her painful story as my guest-blogger this week.
I had just finished speaking to others about the importance of inclusionary practices and had even shared stories of several students I personally know, who struggle daily with being treated unfairly for a variety of reasons. I was traveling from one national educational conference to another with a colleague of mine and needed to board an airplane to my next destination. I speak to others often, about disabilities and about including all kids in all aspects of the educational experience. What I don’t always tell people, is that I have a disability myself. One cannot really see my disability by looking at me and sometimes I choose to not share. However, I sometimes struggle with numbers, letters, direction, verbal instructions, and word recall. My colleague helps out with this stuff, but this time was unfortunately, a little different. As a frequent traveler, I have documentation that allows me to skip the security lines at airports…not only a nice convenience, but truly an accommodation for me. My colleague does not have this documentation and proceeded through the typical security cattle chute, as I smiled my way toward TSA Pre-Check.
I immediately noticed two other people also preparing for Pre-Check. These travelers also had a disability; ones that were visible. I was asked by TSA workers to allow these travelers in front of me. Of course, I immediately complied with a smile and offered well-wishes to them on their travels. A few moments after stepping aside, I apparently had ended up standing in a restricted area and was hastily noticed by TSA, who advanced toward me with great urgency! Yes, these were the same TSA staff who had just asked me to step aside. They questioned why I was there, what I was doing, who I was, if I had Pre-Check credentials, where my identification was, where was my bag, if I knew that I was standing in a restricted space, why I was still standing there, what was in my purse.
Like lightning had struck, I instantly found myself shocked and without my own speech. This frequently happens to me when I feel like things are falling apart around me. My words all fall into a downward spiraling drain like a toilet flushing and I cannot retrieve them! To the TSA agent in my face, my silence was perceived as non-compliance. I was physically pulled to the side, my purse taken from me and searched as demanding words continued to flood my brain. As I was trying to decide if I’d done something wrong or if this was the result of my different brain, my boarding pass was being commanded. It was on my phone, of course, and I couldn’t recall the numbers of my passcode in the correct order. My hands were sweating by this time, so my thumb also wouldn’t open my phone. My identification and Pre-Check documentation was in my purse, which was not in my possession. I couldn’t speak, even to get my name out and certainly not to state why I was standing where I was. There was no way I could even say, “I have a disability, I’m not being contentious.” My colleague was already through regular security and unable to help me. I was on my own, with people who didn’t know I had a disability, thought I was being oppositional, and I’d actually done nothing wrong. I was crying by this point and was actually asked by the TSA staff, “what’s your problem, lady?”
The reason I was standing in the restricted area was because the TSA agents took special care to accommodate the other travelers who had a visible disability, which I was more than agreeable to me! However, to then be treated as a potential threat when my own disability was not outwardly visible, was devastating.
Most of us have probably heard the old adage, “never judge a book by it’s cover.” Upon hearing this story, and holding back most of my own liquid emotion, I reminded myself that many people probably carry more in the bag within the bag, than the bag we actually see. A lot of people are quite good at putting the old tattered bag inside the shiny new bag and it’s easy to see that shiny bag without another thought about what might actually be inside of it. Your students, your colleagues, your students’ families, all have two or three other bags. It may not always be easier, but it’s always worth it, kinder, more productive, more efficient long-term, and more effective to presume that there’s another bag. “What’s your problem, lady,” “what’s your problem kid,” is rarely productive and not the question that will get to the answers we actually seek. It is of utmost importance, that we seek to accommodate both the things we can see, hear, touch AND those we might not perceive immediately.
What We May Not Always Perceive First…Always Matters.