MS advocate Justine Fedak pulls back the curtain on disability blindness

Written By By JUSTINE FEDAK Posted: 04/29/2014, 06:02am

Why do people without disabilities or mobility issues sit in seats designated for those that need them?

This is something I’m forced to confront regularly. I travel by air often, and because of my multiple sclerosis, it’s actually not that easy for me. First, you have to line up and wait to check in. Standing for a long stretch of time can be a very draining experience for someone with MS. While I tell myself I can do it, sometimes the tremor in my leg acts as a warning, and I vividly imagine my leg giving out and the sound of my body hitting the polished floors of O’Hare.

Unlike the airline employees, who don’t seem to notice my cane or anything going on in the line in front of them, the TSA agents are very accommodating. If I’m about to stand in a long line, and I mention that I have MS and doing so would be tough for me, they often send me to the front. Or they ask me if I’m OK while I’m in line. Then they always ask politely if I can walk without my cane through the machine. They smile. I like this part of my trip every time. I like that they seem to care about me. Even if it’s just good training, I’m happy.

But then I’m back into the sea of raw humanity. Where there is no training, there are no rules and seemingly no knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And then, I see them. The people spread out on the chairs designated for people with disabilities, taking up the space for those who need it. Now, perhaps some have a non-visible disability, so they need to be there. I cannot know for sure. But I doubt that for the following reasons:

1. They often have one or two bags on each of the designated seats. I don’t know if their bags have non-visible disabilities, but I suspect not.

2. They jump up multiple times and ask the desk agent questions, then move other family members into the seats while they take turns shopping, going to Duty Free, etc.

3. When they see a person with a cane, they seem not to notice. I’m standing trying to balance while their bags are comfortable in designated seats. Their bags never notice me either.

4. When boarding begins, they run to the front of the line and ensure that they never make eye contact with me.

So lately I’ve taken to confronting them, with half-joking questions like, “Would your disabled bag mind if I sit down?” Or even with a more direct message: “Hi, I’m Justine, I have MS and I really need a seat. Given that this gate is totally full, I wondered if I could trouble you for a seat in this area?” That usually causes a noticeable expression of guilt — I believe it’s because they didn’t think anyone really needed those seats.

I do. I need that seat. And so do others like me. So I hope that the man with all of his bags, snacks and disability blindness I saw this morning is reading this. And I hope the next time he sees a blond girl with big glasses and a lucite cane, he lets me sit down.

And I’ll say thank you and smile.

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