“Hey guys, over here!” My ten-year-old brother Ted had bolted out ahead of us toward the front of the line the Geodesic dome at Epcot. That winter, my family made a
holiday trip to Disney World in Florida, and my brothers and I were beyond thrilled. I was nearly thirteen and years past the last time we went to Disney–when I only cared about meeting Cinderella and Snow White. This time our parents prioritized instead Epcot’s showcase of world restaurants and Spaceship Earth.
In that moment we had been waiting in a long line, baking in the heat to go inside the famous dome when Teddy noticed a much shorter line closer to the entrance, quickly making his way toward it. “I’ll get him,” I waived back to my parents with my one-fingered hand. I noticed a few new stares as I dashed off after Ted. When I caught up to my naïve little brother I heard my older brother, Peter, behind me. “C’mon, we have to get back on line.” Presumably my parents, still far back in the other line, sent Pete to retrieve both of us.
Just as we began to walk back, I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around, I faced a Disney employee smiling down at me. “Miss, you and your family can go through this entrance. No problem.” At first I couldn’t figure out why the special treatment. But, as I saw him staring at my hands, still smiling, I quickly figured it out.
“We can’t go yet, Meg. We’re in Row 18.” John tapped me to keep me from beginning my hopeful dash to the check-in counter at the gate., However I motioned him to follow me with Ethan, Charlie and Savanna. “Hand me the boarding passes,” I said aloud without looking back. We were on our way for a long weekend with the kids to visit my brother and his family in Atlanta. Although my husband of nearly fifteen years was unwilling to check-in our bags due to the inconvenience (not to mention additional expense), we knew we were taking our chances because the longer it took us to board, the more likely the overhead compartments on the plane would be filled when we got there.
“Zone 1! Passengers seated in rows 1-12 may now board.” While the kids followed me instantaneously, assuming it was our turn to board, John gave me a weird look, but then acquiesced. As we walked toward the Delta agent, I began to convince myself that we were justified, even entitled to enter the plane before other adults traveling without children. However, when we arrived at the gate, the attendant, without looking at me remarked with a strong tone, “I am sorry, you all are in Zone 3. You’ll need to stand back.” I decided to try my best shot. “But Ma’am, we have three kids….isn’t it possible to board now?” At first, she began to reiterate her initial reaction. But then, she noticed. Taking a quick look at my one-fingered, hands, then at Ethan and Charlie’s physical difference, her tone softened. “Go right ahead, I just need to swipe your tickets.” I smiled little sheepishly back at John, feeling mildly guilty yet also relieved we would be able to promptly board.
Recently, as I was scrolling through Twitter feeds, I came across a TMZ photograph of Justin Bieber in a wheelchair while at Disneyland. Because Disney allows for people in wheelchairs to always skip long lines, Bieber’s use of the privilege set off alarms in the Twitter-universe. Immediately, his publicist responded that he was simply resting an injured knee. I didn’t think of the Bieber chair-gate story line again until flying on the plane down to Atlanta this past weekend, when I read Ben Mattlin’s Op-Ed piece, “When Wheelchairs are Cool.”
Having been in a wheelchair since age four due to a spinal muscular atrophy condition, Mattlin mentioned Bieber’s latest TMZ appearance in his article, quickly putting on a positive spin (no wheels required) . “The point is that he was not afraid to be seen in a wheelchair, which, to me, is a point for my team.” Mattlin also suggested that even without a wheelchair, the Biebs would presumably get to circumvent the line anyway, given his public status.
But beyond Bieber’s wheelchair escapade, Mattlin’s comments felt strangely familiar. As he put it, “I’ve often felt that I can play the disability card for all it’s worth. I have, I confess, used it to hustle my kids through Disney lines….and besides, sometimes you can’t help it. People offer you stuff, strangers smile at you, give you a thumbs-up. The truth is, taking advantage of one’s disability—or rather, people’s solicitousness—is one of the true joys of life…” Feeling like I can totally relate, the following question became inevitable: Is it fair to take advantage of the “system” when we ourselves don’t necessarily feel like we deserve any special treatment?
The answer came to me from Mattlin himself when he added toward the end of his Op-Ed: “There is still something hopelessly “other” about folks like us.” Indeed. The reality is, those of us with a physical difference frequently feel judgment, pity and fear in the looks and stares we get, even from the most well-intentioned. The impact is unpleasant and demoralizing, to say the least.
If I think about it that way, then what the heck! If you have to endure a life treated as ‘less-than’ simply based on your appearance, then enjoying a few free-bees and/or skipping long lines feels kind of good in the big scheme of things. And, come to think of it, unlike Justin Bieber, not only do you get away with enjoying these perks, no one would ever think to question your character. Oops. Until now!