Last week, I was flying back to Oregon after a family visit. At the airport, they started herding passengers with the familiar announcement: “We’re now beginning early boarding for those who have small children or who need a little extra time… ” I used to ignore it and board with everyone else, until I realized that this not only made things more difficult for me, but for others, as well. So I grabbed my cane and started walking towards the plane.
I soon became aware of another passenger moving in quickly behind me. As is my usual practice, I stepped aside and said, “Go ahead.” But instead, the passenger loudly exclaimed, “No, my wife walks just as slowly as you do. You take all the time you need!”
I said, “Really, please go ahead of me,” and he replied, “No, you’re doing just fine!” I tried one last time, as I didn’t want to rush or be pushed, telling him, “I would prefer it.” He bellowed, “No! My wife walks just as slowly as you do. You’re doing great – and there are people coming up behind us.”
I shot back, “And do you tell your wife whether or not she can ask people to walk ahead of her?” Needless to say, our conversation abruptly ended at that point and we (a group now) all somewhat awkwardly made our way towards the plane.
By the time I was in my seat, I was decidedly “exercised.” I alternated between seething about what a jerk he had been and berating myself for having snapped at him in the first place. After all, he had meant well … hadn’t he?
What I had done was give him power he wouldn’t have had otherwise, which made me feel worse than I would have felt, otherwise. I suppose I could have educated him a little about how things look from my side of the cane, and maybe he’d treat the next person like me in a more respectful manner. It’s just as likely, however, that he wrote me off as being hostile and ungrateful. (And as for what his wife might have thought of all this, please forgive me if I refuse to go there!)
Psychologists have long realized that the concept of “feeling better by venting” is often a fallacy. Letting one’s emotions loose may actually have a reinforcing instead of releasing effect. In this vein, I am struck by the difference between how I felt at the airport and how I felt when I took legal action after my employer had denied my request for reasonable accommodation. Both instances caused me some agitation at first, but the difference is that with the latter, I felt completely at peace afterward. It reminds me that everyone - particularly those of us who must conserve our energy – are generally better off picking and choosing our “cane mutinies.”
Helen Russon is an attorney who currently investigates civil rights complaints for the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries. She also teaches a class on Disability Law for the Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon. Since being diagnosed with MS in 1997, Helen has done volunteer work for the NMSS, and has written several articles for Momentum Magazine regarding both the physical and legal challenges of being a person with multiple sclerosis.