Space Bullies Make It Unsafe for People with Chronic Pain and Sensitivity

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

July 27th, 2009 • Living with Chronic PainPrint Print

As I approached the moving walkway in the airport, I hesitated. My foot was not in good shape. I nonetheless had forfeited the wheelchair in favor of walking; because on more than one occasion, the given airport’s wheelchair driver had bumped my feet into a person or wall, causing me pain for up to a couple of weeks. 

The thing about the moving walkway is that while on the one hand, it spares me the walking distance, on the other hand people try to pass, and when they do so, they can hurt me. I have learned repeatedly that most people will push past someone rather than say “excuse me” and wait for the person to make room.

This walkway was narrow, however, exactly enough room for one person, so I decided to go for it. I figured nobody would try to pass on such a narrow path. Plus the coast was pretty clear behind me. When I got on the walkway, I considered walking so as to avoid anyone being tempted to pass me, but  I decided instead to stay still, to keep my ankle as comfortable as possible. I put my arms on either side of the walkway handles, so as to block people from passing.

You know what’s coming.

So this one guy goes “excuse me” (good for him) while pushing past (bad for him – people need to wait at least, oh, two seconds for the person to respond). I did some combination of blocking his pass, turning to face him, moving over slowly, and saying, “Be careful, I have a disability and hypersensitivity…”

They guy seemed concerned and started backing off. He already had put in motion the passing-on-the-left thing, though, and a huge man with three overstuffed bags pouring out from either side of him came up from behind the first guy, prompting the first guy to continue moving ahead. The second guy literally pushed his way past me, leaving barely any room — so that half my body was literally hanging over the railing.

“Ow!” I yelled. I wanted to stop him, hit him, block him. But that physical tension further would have exacerbated the situation and the pain in my body.

See the thing is, once someone takes it upon himself to invade my space, it’s over. My saying something is too late. Physically doing anything, other than getting out of the way as best as possible, is going to hurt. Unfortunately, so is getting out of the way abruptly, so I’m basically screwed. (Aside from which, I’d like to point out: Who exactly is in whose way?)

I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that I’m a woman. Would they push past me like that if I were a man? Doubtful.

So anyhow, the big guy walks ahead like three seconds, then stops behind the group of people in front. (Interesting how he chose not to push past them.) And this is always how it happens:

Whether an impatient driver risks the lives of other drivers, including myself, to zoom ahead, only to stop at the red light at the intersection, or whether a big guy and his overflowing bags pushes past me to save three seconds and end up standing behind a crowd, it’s never worth it for anyone involved. And in the case of physically pushing past me, I’m the one who pays the price.

I usually don’t speak up, because it’s already over, and I don’t want a confrontation on top of things. But I’m moving closer and closer to engaging in that dialogue. “You’re not even going to apologize?” I said to his back, loud enough for everyone in the vicinity to hear. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

A woman behind me was outraged. “He nearly knocked that woman over!” she said to someone standing next to her. When we got off the moving walkway, she asked if I was ok. I thanked her for that.

Off the moving walkway, I caught up with the man who had bowled me over and said, “Excuse me, sir, can I talk to you for a minute?” He said yes. “I have disability and hypersensitivity, and you only got here about 10 seconds faster than I total.” I wasn’t done talking, but he mumbled, “I’m sorry about that.” “So it really doesn’t make that much of a difference time-wise,” I continued. “In the future, please be more patient.”

Now here’s the thing: Our culture dictates that when someone wants to push past, the person being pushed past acquiesces. I don’t want to anymore. I want to start saying no. Leaving my hands in position, blocking people from passing. Telling the people to be patient. Getting more confrontational.

It’s my badass Consequence self resurfacing in chronic pain land:

Back in my 20s, I decided to do something cutting-edge about street harassment: I began hitting the men harassing me. As women, we’re expected to accept and absorb incessant space invasion. I decided that I was the one who was going to be making the rules and holding men accountable to them. It was a truly liberating experience.

And here’s the thing: If I were to go and punch that guy who bullied his way past me on the walkway, it would be the equivalent of what he did to me. Completely discounting someone’s space, physically ousting someone from the ability to stand without being contorted and off-balance, is a form of assault. It’s a form of violence.

The problem is that unlike going up to a man and punching him, pushing past is not socially recognized as a violent act, so there is no consequence for it – particularly because those victimized are the very group without the strength to respond. Like a little old lady. The other problem is that someone who might not barge past a little old lady (though plenty do – I’ve seen it repeatedly) might very well barge past someone who looks like me, because my disability is invisible.

And yet the behavior leaves me in pain for days, weeks, or months. It adds layers of distress to my life. It adds physical limitation to my life. And as an upshot, It makes travel in particular and crowds in general unsafe and highly distressing for me. I am so fucking sick of it.

According to Jewish law, able-bodied people must walk behind disabled people. You are not allowed to push past. I think our secular society could use a little injection of that practice.

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