16 June 2012

Apparently a drunk

They teach you in customer service that the customer is always right. They're supposed to smile and greet you kindly even if they've had an outright crappy day. They're supposed to handle your requests with ease and efficiency, and where necessary, with discretion and respect.

But we've all had or heard plenty of bad stories about encounters with people in customer service jobs.

I used to laugh at them, never for a moment imagining myself in the middle of one.

Let me try to explain what happened. (It's taken me this long to write about it, because it's taken me this long to laugh about it. And I've actually taken much of it from the logs of a conversation I had over text explaining what had happened while still upset.)

A few months ago, I was in downtown D.C. for the National Day of Mourning organized by Zoe Gross in memory of George Hodgins and other disabled people murdered by family or caregivers. Among the dozens of disabled activists and allies who came was Cara Liebowitz of Butterfly Dreams, a friend from out of state who has cerebral palsy and walks with two crutches.

I was going with her back to the hotel where she was staying several Metro stops away, and we went to the station nearest to the vigil. I have trouble with escalators for sensory and spatial reasons, and generally avoid them wherever necessary. We spent maybe half an hour running between K and I Streets along 17th (for those of you who know D.C. at all) and couldn't find the elevator.

Cara and I went to the window, where I asked the woman sitting in the booth where the elevator was located.

"Your friend needs the elevator?" she asked, and momentarily taken aback, I replied, "No, I do." A look of confusion crossed the woman's face as she glanced at Cara and her crutches and then back at me. "YOU need the elevator?"

Cara tried to interject and prevent an unnecessary misunderstanding by saying, "Okay, we both need the elevator," even though she can actually use escalators with her crutches.

"Are you drunk?" the woman asked me, and for several seconds, I'm sure, I stared in shock.

"No, I'm not drunk," I replied, but she very nearly interrupted me.

"I think you're drunk; you're incoherent. I can't understand you."

"I have never been drinking in my entire life," I said, "never mind drunk." In fact, I have taught English as a Second Language for over three years; I'm pretty sure that I'm articulate and enunciate when I speak.

"You're drunk," said the woman. "You're drunk." She was insistent, her voice forceful, firmly shutting down any denials or attempts to redirect.

"I'm not drunk; I'm developmentally disabled."

There. I said it. I don't do that. I don't normally pull the disability card for fear of stop making excuses and you don't look disabled and oh, I'm so sorry. But I said it because maybe it would be the only way to get her to stop. And she kept insisting that I was drunk and continued to be condescending and rude to me, and very much talking down to me, making me feel like a criminal or as though I had something to be ashamed of for doing something wrong.

And then in the commotion I somehow lost my SmartTrip card, which is the stored value card you use to pay for the subway and the bus in the D.C. metro area. They cost $5 and I had maybe $8 stored on the card. And it went missing.

You swipe your SmartTrip card twice, once when you enter and once when you exit, because fares are calculated based on how far you went as opposed to charging a flat fee for riding the subway or bus. So when we finally arrived where Cara was supposed to go, I had to explain to the guy working at that station that my card was now missing.

"Okay," he said, "you're going to have to pay the $5 for a new card." I think I repeated part or all of his question, because he took a defensive tone and said, "I'm sorry; that's just the policy. I don't make the rules."

And then I had a public meltdown. I was crying in public. And I did become incoherent then.

And Cara tried to help. And she said, "The woman at the other station was very mean to us."

And the man said, seeming a bit defensive, but obviously struggling to maintain a calm tone of voice, "Well, am I being mean?"

And I said, "No, but I'm upset and I'm clearly not communicating well" while sobbing, probably not very intelligible at all.

And he was nice about it and decided to let us go through without paying.

After waiting half an hour for Cara's father to take her back to the hotel, I went back. And I wanted to look for my card and ask if anyone turned one in to a lost and found. But there was no way in heaven or earth that I was talking to that woman alone.

So I called four other people from the vigil and asked them to please come from the restaurant where they'd gone to eat to the station to be there with me as support while I asked the woman about my card. Two friends came while the others stayed at the restaurant.

And apparently the two who had stayed were mildly annoyed at the two who came to get me because the restaurant was closing at ten and it was already far past 9:45pm.

And by the time they found me (I accidentally gave them the street intersection at the other exit from the station), the restaurant was closed and the two at the restaurant had been kicked out, and were more upset.

And then when the two friends found me, they went with me back to the booth where the same woman was there. And she gave me this scathing look, staring down her nose at me, as she said, "So you managed to get back," as if to suggest that because I was so apparently drunk, it was some kind of miracle that I had made it back to the station.

And one of my friends asked her about my SmartTrip card, but she said no one had seen one. (And I'd looked throughout the station, but hadn't found one. Eventually, several days later, I ended up having to buy a new one.)

After we left the station, one of the friends became very upset because he'd left his stuff in the restaurant. So he ran far ahead of the other friend and I who walk much slower.

And then when we finally caught up, he had a panic attack and flipped out and yelled at me, which always triggers me into a panic and acute stress reaction. And he swore at me, which also upsets me.

And then a stranger approached all five of us and thought we had spilled out of a bar and were having a bar fight. He kept asking if we were drunk and which bar we'd come from.

So two of the friends were trying to explain to the stranger that we're actually all friends and not drunk but Autistic so please go away, but he wouldn't go away. And finally the angry friend stormed off, and the two who'd stayed at the restaurant felt bad for the way they'd spoken to him over the phone earlier.

And then I realized it was 10:30pm and I was stuck without a way to get back to Georgetown without the risk of being mauled, mugged, or raped by random drunks or rapists. And I was still starving because I've never really eaten that day either. And by the time I returned to Georgetown, the dining hall was closed.


  1. Oh God.. That sounds horrible. I hate people like that Metro lady, all pushy and unreasonable. That sounds like it was a really long day! That must have been hard. But you guys all rock for going to the vigil!! Wish I could have been there. Also, why is it so hard for someone to understand that another person might want to use the elevators?? I know it's probably too much to ask for, but I hope you don't run into that type of thing again.

  2. We also wandered around for half an hour before that looking for the elevator and we couldn't find it because it was like practically hidden. And then Mean Metro Lady informed us that we would have to go BACK out of the station up the elevator and go to the other station. And when we asked her where the elevator for that station was and told her we had a tough time finding it, that's when everything fell apart.

  3. That souns like a horrible day. People who refuse to listen and cling fiercely to their own interpretation of reality, including their interpretation of my behavior, are the most successful at triggering meltdowns, in my experience. The way such people interact with others is something that I feel ought to be much less socially acceptable than the occasional oddities that people like us display.

  4. Speaking as the parent of an autistic teen - your story is an example of what I fear for her in the future. She is smart and capable and by all outward appearances a "typical" person. It isn't until she is confronted by cruelty or other poorly unexpected things (like losing the smartcard for the Metro) that she falls apart, and when she falls apart she does so in a big way. I want for her to be able to be independent and to follow her dreams, but stories like yours make me want to keep her safe at home with me always.
    I'm sorry that you had to go through that experience. The Mean Metro lady was obviously in the wrong. In my experience, they act like automatons there - more inflexible than the worst stereotypes of inflexible autistics.

    1. You have to remember that the problem does not lie on your daughter's end. The problems lie with the attitudes of other people who may encounter your daughter. If she were to stay in-house for the rest of her life, there would be countless missed opportunities to positively impact others and to shatter stereotypes and presumptions of incompetence. Until Autistics in large numbers proudly identify as Autistic in public in all facets of life, we will continue to experience this widespread, pervasive type of prejudice. (And even then, there will still be bigotry, but why deny the world our lives and contributions?)

    2. I know you're right, but sometimes feel it's the onus on the autistic person to have the stronger social skills than the neurotypical, and that doesn't seem quite right to me. So we're doing our best to gear her up for the world and really pushing her beyond the four walls where she's most comfortable, but it is a journey.

    3. You're absolutely right about that. Our society is so skewed toward acceptable norms that any divergence whatsoever from them is labeled pathology or defect. We Autistics are expected to compensate over 95% in your direction, and when we ask for you (general you, not you specifically necessarily) to compensate an extra few percentages in our direction, you balk at this obvious travesty. This is ultimately a reflection of much deeper and more pervasive problems with our society.

  5. Oh, my....all I can think of to say is is oh, my! I found your blog through Thinking Persons Guide to Autism. Please know that I am so sorry that this happened to you, but the way that you told the story....well let's just say that your ability to laugh at the situation now shines through!!

    1. I have encountered similar experiences in Philadelphia where I live. Our mass transit system, SEPTA, is loaded with problems. Some of thier drivers are rude and unprofessional and they speed when driving the buses and the trains. Questions from them are answered with one word answers that don't really answer the question that was addressed to them. They make more then a living. What they make per hour is criminal considering how unprofessional they can be.

      Last summer, I witnessed them not letting an elderly man on to a bus because they could not figure out how to secure his wheelchair on to the bus. They are trained on how to do that. He was fortunately able to get on the next bus. This was in the middle of hot weather.

      I am very sorry about what happened to you in Washington DC. Hopefully, it will be the last time that it dose.

  6. Lydia,

    There is a story I should probably tell you at Autreat. Assuming I forget (which is quite likely), please ask.

  7. I'm just curious, does your disability effect your movements/and or speech at all? I'm just wondering because a similar incident happen to a friend of mine who had CP. He walks on his toes and can't move in a straight line due to tight muscles so a cop thought he was drunk and gave him a test to see if he was sober. If you have trouble with your speech or movement sometimes people mistake it for being drunk. We need to educate people on what disability looks like so this doesn't happen. I'm sorry you had to go through that.

    1. Not typically, actually, at least not in obvious ways. I tend to speak more formally than the average person, but have not been told that my movements or speech appear stereotypically disabled or divergent from what is usually considered acceptable.

    2. Yeah the people that I'v met who are autistic didn't seem disabled at all(I had a physical therapist 4 years ago who was autistic,I have Cerebral Palsy.) Obviously this person had issues and just vented it out on you which is totally unfair. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question.

  8. Oh, that sucks!

    I've never been mistaken for drunk, though I have no balance and can't walk a straight line.

    I did have a meltdown in an airport once, when I missed a connecting flight and had to get a new boarding pass for a different flight --- I was completely unable to do this because the airport was so crowded and noisy. So I summoned up all the will I had left and went over to a flight attendant, telling her I was autistic and having problems and needed a new boarding pass. She went to the head of the line and got one for me! I was so happy; it's quite possible that without her help I may have been stranded there overnight or something ...

  9. This is a valuable lesson. Make the most of it.

  10. What the heck difference would it make if you WERE drunk? You asked where the elevator was. She should have just told you and got on with her own business and allowed you to get on with yours. Why did she make it into this big mess?

    Her behavior makes no sense to me.


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