“My body is none of your damn business.”

I hate conflict. I avoid it at all costs, including staying far away from courtrooms (a liability for an attorney). But today, I felt the unfamiliar boiling up of anger – first churning in my belly, then burning through my throat, and then as I sensed my face turning red and warming. My voice was an uncharacteristically willing vehicle for that anger, and I opened my mouth. And I heard myself arguing – really, fervently arguing. With an old man. In an airport.

Airports are a pretty unpleasant place these days, and I’ve started reading articles about how and why everybody seems to be on their worst behavior. They’re stressed out, they’re away from home, they’re dragging their dearest belongings behind them in a battered plastic case that’s been inspected by government agents. So, to my fellow passengers: believe me when I say that I have empathy for your plight. I’m right here with you. But that plight doesn’t give you license to be a jerk. Here’s what happened today.

I’m traveling cross-country today with a companion who is recovering from an injury and, for that reason, had received authorization to pre-board our flight. My companion approached our gate at the airport and collapsed into the chair nearest to the jet bridge. An elderly man sitting nearby barked at him: “Do you see that image on the chair you just sat on? Look behind you. Are you disabled?” My companion has thick-ish skin and ignored the Rude Old Man (we’ll call him Rom) – just looked right through him (It’s a skill I’ve never mastered. I always flushed when people called me out like that and sheepishly skulked away.) I stood over my companion’s chair, and we continued our conversation as Rom and his traveling companions glowered at us. I was carrying all of our bags, juggling them along with our dog while searching for my cell phone. I set my purse down on a nearby chair to more thoroughly search its pockets. Rom turned his attention to me. “Do you see that image on the chair? You can’t use that chair. Are you disabled? What is your disability?”

Rom was about to find out that he fucked with the wrong woman. I looked him dead in the eye: “That’s none of your business.” The death glares of the four elderly people sitting around me didn’t chill my spine as they intended. He continued: “But what is your disability?”  I once had one, and I was once too sheepish, too small, too broken to speak up. I’m strong now, and I’ve found my voice.

“Whether I’m disabled is none of your business. You have no right to ask people whether they’re disabled. That’s not your place. Your question is inappropriate and insensitive. You are being rude.”

::GASPS:: (I was fully aware of the fact that my audience thought me the rude one here, disrespecting my elder and such.)

He wasn’t deterred: “You look ambulatory. If people are ambulatory, then they’re not disabled. You look fine to me.” He also continued interrupting me and parroting the same question over and over and over: “Are you disabled? You don’t look disabled.”

“Whether someone appears to you to be ambulatory is not the standard of disability. You cannot ask people whether they’re disabled, let alone what disables them.  Many people suffer from disabilities that are invisible. They suffer from disabilities that aren’t physical or ambulatory or obvious. I once suffered from a disability, not that I’m obligated to tell you that, and questions like yours were humiliating and made my life harder. And my disability wasn’t one you could see. You cannot always see them, and you shouldn’t be asking about them. It is inappropriate and very insensitive.”

Rom’s traveling buddies busied themselves in their books and cell phones. He was on his own with this argument. Even my companion looked surprised (though he tried not to show it, instead offering a What-She-Said nod in my direction).

Rom hit on a sore spot for me and so many others who’ve suffered with invisible or less-visible disabilities. A family member once suggested that I start using a cane – not because I needed one, but because it would show others that I was really disabled. They knew I had pelvic pain, but I just didn’t look sick to them. Anyone who’s battled chronic pain or invisible illnesses knows the chorus too well: “But you don’t look sick!,” or “But you look so healthy!” The way people look and the way people feel can be vastly different. And none of us should ever feel that it’s appropriate for us to comment upon, criticize, and judge the conduct of others based on outward appearances.

I’ve met so many people like Rom over the years. He scrutinized me up and down, as so many had, and he wagged his finger at me, certain he’d caught me misbehaving, trying to take advantage somehow – in a system where no one has an advantage, where no one wins. Visible and invisible disabilities suck, and rather than policing the conduct of those around us, we’d all be better served by having a lot more empathy.

If you’re living with an invisible illness, I encourage you to stand up for yourself in little situations like this. You need not do so as strongly as I did, but being indignant about your right to take up space is a great way to assert your dignity in face of your pain or illness. I know that it’s so much easier to succumb to the demands of people like Rom, just as you succumb to your illness. But it’s crucial to resist that urge; don’t back away from the chair with your head hung in embarrassment. Just pointedly tell people like Rom that not all disabilities are visible, pop your earbuds in, and ignore the bastard. But please don’t give up your seat just because he can’t see where you hurt.

Your pain is real, but so is your need for empathy.

© 2017 Inspire Santé, NFP