1. What would you do in this situation?
This scenario presents a potential ethical dilemma, which may require some de-escalation and conflict resolution. The first thing I’d want to do is gather some information, if possible, and try to remain non-judgmental. I’d need to ensure I was interpreting the situation correctly, but I also want to respect the privacy of the two passengers who are about to board – it would not be appropriate to ask them to disclose any disability status. So, I’d try to speak with the upset woman, to clarify what, exactly, she was finding so frustrating. I would speak with her in a non-confrontational manner, and – if at all possible – I’d try to call her to the side where we could speak privately, rather than causing a bigger disturbance among the other passengers. She may not understand that what she has said could be hurtful, and I want to prioritize the well-being of the disabled couple/person, try to use this as an educational experience, and do so in a way that doesn’t inconvenience my fellow passengers or the flight crew by delaying boarding. In a soft tone, I would ask the woman, “Can you please explain to me why you are so upset? I’m not sure I understand, so I’d like to hear your perspective.” What I do from there would depend on her response. It could be that she was referring to something completely different, and I’ve simply misread the situation. If that’s the case, then I will apologize for misinterpreting what she said. If, however, she tells me that she was assuming that the couple (either one or both of them) were actually able-bodied and taking advantage of a policy to board before others, I would try to acknowledge her feelings by actively listening and repeating her statements back to her as questions, to ensure I fully understood her complaint. After that, I would gently say the following, “I appreciate the frustration you’ve expressed, as well as your understanding of the situation. However, I wonder if you are familiar with the term ‘invisible disability’. This is a term that covers many conditions, including chronic illness, chronic pain, and other ‘hidden’ conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. While such patients may not outwardly ‘look’ disabled, and may not (always) use mobility devices, they actually benefit considerably from minor accommodations like priority boarding or accessible parking passes. This can be confusing for those unfamiliar with such conditions, because such people ‘don’t look sick’ or ‘don’t look disabled’, but their illness is very real.” Hopefully, she will interpret what I’ve said in a positive light, and I’ll be very careful not to appear judgmental or confrontational. If she understands, perhaps I can persuade her to apologize to the couple. However, it is possible that she will not accept my explanation. If that is the case, then at least I know I’ve done what I can to help advocate for such patients.
2. To use accessible parking spaces, people with disabilities must display a special placard, or have special license plates on their car. Do you think similar documentation should be required for accommodations like the one posited in the scenario (priority boarding on a flight)? Why or why not?
Disability parking passes are a useful way of ensuring public spaces are accessible to people with conditions that limit their mobility, and to ensure that limited resources (parking spaces) are allocated in a way that prioritizes such access in the interest of equity. In large, frequently-used, and often heavily populated areas, like parking lots or on-street parking, such regulation is necessary, since the goal is access for people with disabilities. It ensures spaces for such individuals will be available and holds others accountable if they use such spaces without the required documentation. That said, some would note that unauthorized use does occur, and there have been people who fraudulently use parking passes – for example, driving a friend or relative’s car with a disability license plate and using accessible spaces, despite not having a mobility issue themselves. However, while many people use automobiles and parking facilities every day, most people only fly a few times a year, if at all. As such, requiring documentation for such an infrequently-used mode of transportation may place an undue burden on those with disabilities. Such parking placards or license plates can only be obtained with documentation from a physician (often a specialist), who must have had the patient in their care for a significant amount of time, and who must indicate the scope of the disabling condition (e.g., whether it is temporary or permanent). While many flights are booked well in advance, sometimes, people must fly on short notice, such as in an emergency or in the case of a death in the family. Since obtaining a parking pass requires an appointment with a physician as well as time processing the documentation before the pass is issued, it may be difficult for someone to complete all of the necessary steps in time for their flight, especially as they are disabled. Allowing priority boarding takes a very small amount of time, and – while it may be inconvenient for others – it is a very small inconvenience. In this scenario, everything could have been resolved very quickly, if the couple were simply allowed to board without disruption. Considering that this is a delicate ethical issue (which includes private and confidential information), it is likely best to simply give people the benefit of the doubt, as fraudulent use of something like this is quite rare.
3. Can you describe a time when you intervened on behalf of someone else in a public space?
One day, on my way to school (taking public transit), I noticed a young woman walking quickly with a young man following behind her. The man was yelling at the woman, “Hey! I’m just trying to say hello to you. Why won’t you talk to me?” She looked visibly upset, and he began walking faster and calling her names, using profanities, etc. I’d been walking toward them (we were going in opposite directions after exiting the subway train), so I slowed down and walked off to the side, out of the path of others, to observe the situation. As they got closer, I could see tears in the woman’s eyes – she seemed very shaken up and scared. I wanted to help her, so I put on a warm smile and walked over to her. “Oh, there you are,” I said, “I’ve been wandering around trying to find you!” She looked confused, but began walking toward me. As she got close, I whispered, “It’s okay. Tell me where you’re going and I’ll walk with you.” Her face softened immediately as she put her arm in mine and began walking in the direction she’d been heading. We made small talk as we walked up the stairs and exited the subway station, with the young man still following, but quiet now. As we got outside, she told me which building she was heading toward, but said she was scared to go there. Instead, we ducked into the nearest building. We found a bench and sat down for a moment. She began crying and explained that he had been following her for the last 20 minutes, even as she switched subway lines (from east-west to north-south, to get to campus). She’d tried to ignore him, but he kept getting louder, faster, more aggressive. We sat there and watched as he walked by in one direction, looking at us through the window as he passed. About 5 minutes later, he walked by again, in the opposite direction, heading back toward the subway. We saw him enter the station and waited a few minutes to ensure he didn’t come back. Once all seemed clear, I walked her to her building, and then went back about my day. Though I myself am a woman, and have experienced similar, this was the first time I was able to help someone else through a situation like this. It made me realize how vulnerable many people are to such things, and led me to wonder if the young man even realized how terrorized she’d felt. It also impressed on me the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings – it just so happened that on this particular day, I’d forgotten my earbuds at home, so I wasn’t listening to music, as I would normally have done. If I were, I probably wouldn’t have noticed what was happening, and may not have been able to step in and be of assistance.