This morning my support worker Ellie and I were in the waiting room at the specialist neurological hospital I go to. I was there to have a nerve conduction test, which turned out to be a pretty intense experience where bursts of electricity are applied to your hands and legs to check that the nerves are working.
While we were waiting to be seen, two women arrived. They checked in with reception and sat down to wait. One woman was probably in her mid-twenties and the other in her fifties. After only a couple of minutes they both started copying my tics and laughing at me.
I’ve been in situations like this many, many times before but it happens less often now that I’m a wheelchair user. People shouldn’t need a visible symbol of disability to be understanding and supportive, or just to persuade them not to laugh, but it does seem to make a difference.
But this morning my wheelchair didn’t make any difference, nor did the hospital environment, and the mockery went on unchecked.
I tried all the subtle tricks like smiling at them, and talking to Ellie so they could hear my chosen language as well as my tics.
None of this worked. I could’ve challenged them or spoken to the receptionist but I already felt nervous about the appointment and was worried about escalating the situation.
When I travelled more independently, I used to expect interactions like this and I had tried, tested and carefully honed ways of responding. This morning I felt very out of practice but, just as I was thinking about what to do, my name was called.
I felt disappointed that I hadn’t tackled their laughter and was sure I’d missed my chance. But on our way out we bumped into the older woman waiting for the lift and we went down together. On the way I chatted to her, keen for her to see me as a person rather than as just a funny experience in her day.
Away from her younger companion she was friendly and kind and I really hope this brief exchange will have made her reflect on her earlier behaviour.
Of course no one should have to put up with incidents like this, and it’s not my responsibility to challenge or educate everyone who’s rude or discriminatory towards me. At the same time, though, I know I’ve got skills, experience and privilege that should make it easier for me to speak up in situations like this than it is for many other people who have tics.
Ages ago, when I first started getting taxis for work, I remember telling Laura that I was concerned that doing this might make me soft. She rightly pointed out that getting to work in a safe, dignified way without abuse wasn’t too much to ask and not being soft at all.
Reflecting on the incident this morning has made me more determined to use my voice and to speak up next time something like this happens.