Today, I read news of a teen with Down Syndrome and his family, cheated out of their first-class seats and booted off of an American Airlines flight after a pilot, allegedly unseen, complained that the boy was a "safety risk" on the flight and could not board the plane. Allegedly, the concern was that the boy would be unruly up there in first class, too close to the cockpit, and distract the pilot. The parents videotaped some of the incident, including their son's behavior, which didn't bear out the airline's allegations [Update: AA has posted their version of events on its Facebook page].
So many things about this episode are striking (watch the video at the end of this article here), but one thing that stands out for me is the pilot, who reportedly observed the boy without speaking to the parents, and then, like the man behind the curtain, determined that the teen was a "safety risk." No one bothered to talk to the parents. American Airlines released a statement saying that "the young man was excitable, running around, and not acclimated to the environment." They claimed that the pilot attempted to calm the young man, but the family says that the pilot never came within 15 feet of their son or made contact with them (I've never seen a pilot even make eye contact with passengers at the gate). What he did, they say, was simply to see their son and make his determination. In a video the mother made during the incident, she is sobbing.
I get that.
The family thinks that the real issue was that American Airlines didn't want a special needs teen in their first-class cabin, presumably disrupting the rarefied air of the Big Seats for Rich People section of the plane. That their son's difference simply wasn't a "fit" for people's preconceived ideas about who ought to be sitting in first class.
I get that, too.
Those preconceived ideas about who belongs and where they belong, about how they need to behave and to be while they're there drive many of the responses I detect in the people around us when my family is in public. At younger ages, children whose behavior slips past the "norm" probably don't stand out as much. What's to notice about a 5-year-old who leans on his mother's arm at all times, who makes funny noises or spontaneous grimaces at a restaurant table, or even who flaps or shows perhaps more than a little hint of not being entirely "acclimated," whatever the hell that means.
But when the child and parent are the same height and the child exhibits behaviors that just aren't quite... quite... people notice. And while at younger ages, children tend to receive more smiles than frowns or eyerolls, at the older ages, the looks are disapproving, the stares are steady, critical, and smile free. Often following the stare is a lean to a dining or walking partner, a whispered comment, a shared glance again in our direction, and meaningful eye contact between the offended pair.
We see you. We see what you're doing. We can even tell what you're saying because every once in awhile, people with less ... constraint? ... than you will actually comment out loud. In these cases, without hesitation, I will comment right back, clearly and unequivocally.
But what do we do when all they seem to do is stare? Your stares are communication, just as much as if you spoke your thoughts out loud, directly to us. Your body language, your partnered communication? We aren't visually impaired. We can see what you're doing, and what you're doing hurts us. As much as we love our children and wouldn't do anything--including parasitic worm therapy--to change fundamentally who they are or their harmless idiosyncracies, we feel it when people like You stare and shake your heads and comment.
I get that.
You don't want to see Those People who make you realize that everyone has a place in this world. You don't want your dinner disrupted, not by noise, but by the mere presence of someone who is clearly different from you. It's disturbing to know that people who are different aren't being kept out of your sight, aren't being kept hidden away so that you can go about your day unruffled and ignorant and uncompassionate as ever.
So get this.
We're here. Get used to it. Embrace it. Understand that you are just as different from the people around you as we are from you--you just hide it better. But hiding it doesn't magically make you a better person or more of a person or a more acceptable person any more than that pilot's stealth determination to ban that boy from a flight because of his disability makes that pilot's behavior OK. You see, when people live with filters and can hide who they really are, it can take others time to learn that they are, say, bigoted assholes. But when a person has either the naivete or the bravery to live their every moment in their most honest representation of themselves, you can instantly see how they're different. It can be shocking, I know, to learn that some people have nothing to hide.
But different doesn't make them any less than you. And it doesn't make your staring and your commenting anything but rude and painful. Maybe you should work on hiding that better because next time I see it? I've decided that I will respond to your communication, whether you're using words to do it or not.