Learning to Live as a "Disabled Person"

So my Nine Inch Nails tickets were a Mother's Day present. Not exactly traditional, but exactly me. BF got me general admission tickets; on the floor, no seats, giant mass of people in black makeup, chains, and spikes. A dream really. I've been aching to be in the pit at a Nails concert since I was twelve years old. Needless to say I was thrilled with the gift.

Two weeks later I was in the hospital getting my pulmonary hypertension diagnosis.

It's actually kind of odd, I don't often go to concerts, but in the three months following my hospitalization I had four to go to. Pearl Jam and Ani DiFranco weren't big concerns; I'd have a seat and my oxygen, so if I needed to (and I did) I could sit and recompose myself. General admission doesn't really allow you that option. When you've got people packed in on every side of you, there isn't even the option to go sit on the ground at the back of the floor.

At one GA concert (when I was a "normal" 17 year old), I was wearing knee high black boots that were made for calves that were just a bit slimmer than my own. I had gotten them tied, just barely, and had my awesome fishnets-miniskirt-army jacket-spiked collar-and (most importantly)-big black boots in place and I was feeling my oh-so-hot-shit 17 year old self...until the crowd closed in and it became clear that those big black boots were tied just a bit too tight, tight enough that they were cutting off my circulation. Limited blood flow to my brain and with the heat of the compressed crowd first made my vision start swimming, then everything that was insanely loud and close started to seem very muffled and distant. I elbowed my way out of the crowd and back to the bathrooms in time to pass out in a typically filthy bathroom stall. But then there was an easy fix, once I regained consciousness; untie the damn boots and relace them so that they weren't depriving me of oxygen. I rejoined the crowd shortly and had a great time.

This time, of course, everything was different. Floor tickets or not, the venue was not letting me down on the floor in a wheelchair...apparently that would make me a fire hazard. They did, however, accommodate me very well. The handicapped section was very close to the stage and though I didn't get that experience I really wanted, I got to see a great show from pretty great seats. I dismissed my brother, who had come with me, to go join the packed mass on the floor and he had a great time too.

What this brings me to are the absolutely awful accommodations that I encountered two days later at a certain amusement park in Allentown, PA.

BF, a friend of ours, and I visited that big theme park down in Orlando about a year and a half ago. We were actually able to visit all four of their amusement parks in three days because of their excellent wheelchair accommodations. At that point, my problem was only that I couldn't walk the long distances required to do even a small percentage of the parks, so BF sweetly wheeled me (often at breakneck speeds) through the parks and the setup and the staff were just so good; I can't even explain how pleasant they made our trip, how helpful and friendly they were, and how much I was blown away by how well they treat disabled people.

So maybe I was spoiled, but Sunday's amusement park experience was just atrocious, totally unacceptable. We waited in mine for tickets for half an hour, me in my wheelchair, BF pushing. Not a single sign of announcement or hint of an indication was made that there was a disability policy in place, let alone what that policy was and how restrictive it would be or how taken advantage of I would feel when they finally told me about it. After buying our tickets and going through the wheelchairs and strollers gate, being let in by a man in a wheelchair who also said nothing about their disability policy or what I needed to do to ride the rides, BF and I proceeded to walk the fifteen minutes across the Midway to the first roller coaster that we planned to ride. We walked up to the entrance and were simply stared at by the attendant. After a god thirty seconds he bluntly asked me "Where's your boarding pass?" What followed was one of the stupidest conversations, with the most long pauses that I've ever had. He didn't voluntarily tell me what a boarding pass was when I asked, he looked at me like I was stupid while I pried the information out of him. And what I got was that we had to return back to the park entrance and get a "boarding pass" from guest services.

So we trekked back to the beginning and waited in line behind several people complaining about various issues. When we finally got to talk to the sixteen year old manning the Guest Services, she asked me my name, condition, and went through the various issues that would keep me off of the ride because the first half of the boarding pass was really a waiver and an aknowledgement by the park that I had the physical capacity to ride the rides in the park. I had no problem with that and because I really only need the chair so that I don't get worn out, I wasn't restricted from riding anything. Even if I had been because of some issue, I think that that would be an acceptable policy that would keep both me and the park safe. It was the second part of the boarding pass that pissed me off, and it really does take quite a bit to really make me angry, but the combination of a total lack of customer service skills by anyone in the office, their inflexibility, and the restrictive nature of the policy all combined to really send me over the edge.

The process involved in using the "pass" entailed going to each ride that we wanted to go on, winding our way back through the meandering handicapped entrance, waiting for someone at the ride to notice our presence, again a college or high school student working a summer job that they don't really give a damn about, and once our presence was actually noticed, handing over the "pass". The disinterested attendant, and I use the term loosely because they were far from attentive, would then disappear into the little control room, guess at how long the other patrons were waiting, and give me back the pass with the name of the ride and the time that I could return to ride. I was instructed that I could only go to one ride to get a time or the previous time would be crossed off and I wouldn't be able to ride that coaster unless I went through the whole process again. When I asked what they expected me to do during this arbitrary amount of time that had been divined by an eighteen year old working a boring summer job, they simply told me that there are lots of other things to do in the park while I waited. Things like spending four dollars on a bottle of water, playing over priced carnival games, and generally just pouring more money down their gullet. That's where I really started to feel taken advantage of. How on earth did these people really think that these kids could guess at how much time it takes to get through the lines? I've been to far too many amusement parks where the front gate says you'll be waiting an hour and twenty minutes later you're walking off the ride. I didn't want these kids cutting my day short with bad guesses. And if they had even made it okay for me to go sign up for one more ride during the time I was waiting it may have been okay, but I either had to wind my way back out of the handicapped entrance, wait and then wind back through, or spend that time feeding their vendors money for overpriced crap. And to top that wonderful policy off, I was required to be back at the ride within five minutes of the time that they gave me or I'd loose my spot completely.

So I wasn't happy. I disagreed with the policy and I felt that they were seriously limiting the ability of disabled people to get the full value of their tickets. I told them that I'd already been at the park for nearly an hour and a half, hadn't ridden a single ride, didn't agree with the "boarding pass" policy and felt that I wasn't going to get the experience I'd paid for, so I just wanted a refund and I'd leave. Well apparently they have another, very inflexible policy, that simply states "No Refunds Under Any Conditions". When I asked for a supervisor, he simply restated the policy to me about nine times until I was really just pissed beyond pissed. He wasn't listening to anything I was saying an he was insisting that I couldn't speak to anyone who had any real authority because all of the managers were in a meeting. So I dug in. I told him the I was physically, not mentally disabled, that I understood the policy, but I was dissatisfied with the whole experience (a feeling that was getting more intense with every word he uttered) and that I wasn't going anywhere until he, or someone above him that was authorized to do so, gave me my money back. I also mentioned that it would be far easier to refund my ticket than to have to deal with an ADA attorney, at which point he walked away from the window and said he couldn't talk to me anymore if I was going to talk about lawyers; that's also when he called security ON A GIRL IN A WHEELCHAIR. I hadn't threatened to come back there and beat him with my oxygen tank, I had simply told him that I wasn't going anywhere until I got a refund. Security seemed to find his calling them laughable and the two guards milled around the office with nothing to do. They certainly couldn't kick me out, I hadn't done anything that was against their rules; I was just complaining. After arguing with him about his total inability to ask a single manager to leave the meeting for a moment to deal with the situation, I demanded the corporate office's number; there was no way I was givig in to this twenty something jerk that was smirking at me and not being the least bit apologetic that I, as a patron, was displeased with the park experience.

Calling corporate was the perfect move. I immediately and politely asked for everyone's boss when they got on the line, until I actually had someone with authority on the phone. She was still resistant, but I continued to dig in my heels and state my case in the most mature, polite, and still assertive terms possible. After a good ten minutes on the phone with her she agreed to call the office and instruct them to give BF and I a full refund. It took her another half hour, during which we just stayed in the tiny office, to make the call, but a very sweet, very apologetic woman did eventually come out of the office with a refund receipt and cash that covered the price of admission for both BF and I and the fee that we'd paid to park. I was so happy when it was finally over. The only unfortunate part was that the asinine supervisor that had argued with me for so long was nowhere to be found when I finally got what I had come for.

It was ridiculous. The whole stupid thing was ridiculous. Their park is so badly setup for people with disabilities, with huge hills and ride groupings that force you to spend half the day wheeling back and forth across the park. It's just not ADA friendly as far as I'm concerned and you can bet that I won't be returning unless their policies change and they seriously clean up their act and improve their staffing.

It's really strange for me to adjust to this whole new part of my identity. Wearing the oxygen, riding in the wheelchair; it's all very new and very alien just to see myself that...disabled. I'm getting used to it though, it doesn't bother me as much, but it still occasionally makes me feel that teenage "everyone's looking at me" complex, but being an adult, having studied psychology, being a social sciences freak, I know that that feeling is unwarranted. Sure I still get the occasional prolonged look from another adult who I can just write off as uninformed and not very polite. And there are the kids, but kids stare at people whether their wearing oxygen tubing or not. People just don't enforce the "it's not polite to stare" maxim with their children anymore, but they're kids, so it doesn't make me feel like a freak. It's just an adjustment I guess. Having to deal with "accommodations" and special policies and being conscious of my body and my movement to such a greater degree is weird and not easy, but just like everything in this topsy turvy new world of mine, I'm adjusting, figuring things out, feeling my way. I'm confident that I will get there. And I've already proven that I'm willing to accept this new me and stand up, not literally of course, for my right to be treated like an average capable person that just needs some slight help doing those average everyday things.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you stood up for yourself and fought for that refund. How ridiculous! If there was a place to report them, I would, but I don't even know who to report them to.

    Being "disabled" in public took alot of getting used to, but after 8 years of being on o2 out in public, I forget about it! Well, most of the time, anway! I am sure you will, too.