Tuesday, February 19, 2013

From my side of the cane

Helen Marie Russon
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.


  1. I have also felt uneasy with people offering assistance, whether I'm walking with my cane or using the motorized cart in a shopping center. It is really upon me to come to peace with how others try to accommodate me. Her discussion on this matter is right on key!!

  2. I think that the man was being kind and understanding, and that you were not very accepting of it. I don't like "holding up" people when I am walking slowly with my walker, but in a case like this, I think having this man behind me would have been a blessing.

    1. I felt the same as you did when reading this. "Yes,thank you" would be kinder and more civil response. Lawyers like to argue. Choose your battles.

  3. I take my cane to the airport because "you never know". I don't need it all the time but the excitement, stress, and rush of getting from the ticketing counter to the gate tests my balance and walking. The way I look at it, my cane should be the signal that I might not move as fast as someone else. I will make room for someone to pass by walking to the right side but I have found that it makes things worse if *I* am the one to initiate the request. This gentleman walking down the gangway at the same time as you showed that he was another person who "needed more time" to get himself settled on the plane. I'm sure that 'hindsight is 20/20' at this point!

  4. Hi - Gail here, a MS'er from CT - I too thought he guy was being aware and actually helpful. I am sure I am not privy to his tone and insistence and how he was trying to take control - i really get the line between helpful and insultung. I do.
    Take care

  5. Nancy from Seattle - I walk with 2 forearm crutches. When I have a chance like in a elevator, I will ask people to go ahead of me when exiting, and say that it takes me a little time to get moving. But there will always be times when well meaning people might not get that we are asking for understanding that the pace may still be too fast. I might say that I am concered about falling or tiring too quickly and it would be a great service to me if they would please go ahead. I would not worry too much, I know it a challenge when people want to help and you would prefer they not - I just let them help and tell them they earned their karma points for the day. As long as they are doing no harm I just try to roll with it. And it is always ok to be cranky about stuff - MS does not makes us super-human.

  6. I am currently walking unaided but often am slower than most. When I notice a line behind me I pull to the side and say "Slower traffic keep right." Society in general needs to slow down and take stock of what is goign on with others and how their words might affect them. I know it is a rat race, but not everyone can race.