Friends & Fans of My Year Without Complaining (Joyce Kramer, Patricia Reynolds, Kati Behan, & Sue Darby among them) have urged me to acknowledge that some conduct deserves comment. Though technically “complaining”, they argue, commentary on substandard or abusive customer service benefits society at large by encouraging future improvement.
Until now, I have not taken a position on these proposed exceptions to the no-complaining rule by which I have sworn to live. But now I have, and I write to confess to each of you that this self-proclaimed noncomplainer has taken a deliberate step off the wagon.
In a nutshell:
I was flying home from California. I had been assisted by a wheelchair attendant to the scheduled gate, burdened with more baggage than I would have taken had I been walking. The gate was changed without notice. Though I was listed as a preboard due to disability, no one came to notify me of the gate-change or help me get to the new gate. I heard the announced boarding. Concerned about missing the flight, I started trying to manipulate the wheelchair without success.
A passenger saw me and helped me get to the new gate. When I told the boarding agent that I had a pass to preboard, she got upset and started accusing me of being angry, which was completely untrue. Another passenger approached me and told me not to criticize the airline and grabbed my arm. He stood over me yelling at me. His spit hit my face. I stared him in the eye and quietly cautioned him to release my arm. The airline employee did nothing to protect me from the passenger who placed his hand on me without invitation.
When the agent wheeled me to the airplane, she physically prevented me from rising out of the wheelchair by standing in front of me nearly pressing against my knees. She then announced that if I did not state that nothing amiss had happened, she would (falsely) declare that I was irate and prevent me from boarding.
Through all of this, I remained calm and made no ad hominem statements to anyone. I did not raise my voice or make any threats. At one point, I stopped speaking completely, using a calm demeanor as my response every time the boarding agent repeated her intention to (falsely) claim that I was irate in order to keep me off the plane. Eventually, she dropped her plan and stepped aside. Assisted by a flight attendant, I boarded the plane without further incident.
With some trepidation, I sent a letter to this major airline (which shall for the present go unnamed) regarding behavior toward me which can only be described as bully behavior designed to intimidate me into submission.
To my credit, in the face of the physical and verbal abuse by the airline employee and the unknown passenger, I recognized the immediate peril. Airline employees can take immediate action to deny passage and restrain liberty with very little if any justification. I understand this abstract concept. Even if I did not realize the power which I faced, the airline employee articulated her control over me in those precise words. “All I have to do is say you were irate, and I can keep you off this plane.” That is a nearly verbatim quote.
She knew that I was not behaving in an irate manner. I remained calm at all times. I did not raise my voice. Aware of the difficulty of modulating my pitch posed by my hearing issues, I deliberately adopted a low register and nonchallenging words. When the other passenger interjected himself into the one-on-one conversation which the airline employee and I had been having, I did not respond with either words or conduct of threat or aggression.
I am fully aware that bullies (such as the airline employee seemed to be) need only a flimsy excuse for accelerating their behavior. Thus, I did not respond to the passenger who grabbed me in a way which might have given the boarding agent an excuse to claim that I was angry. I merely told this stranger in quiet terms to take his hand off of my arm. I have no idea why he approached me. I was sitting in a wheelchair, not speaking, about to be pushed onto the plane. His conduct astounded me, as did the failure of the boarding agent to protect me from the assault. The entire affair could have completely flummoxed many people even more vulnerable than I. However, through it all, I am proud to say that I remained calm.
When safely back home, I wrote a long and carefully penned letter to the airline. My son reviewed and edited it for me. I did not ask for compensation. I merely indicated that I wanted to protest the way in which I was treated, while at the same time acting to insure that other disabled passengers do not suffer what I experienced.
This journey to joy — My Year Without Complaining — has brought me to the point at which I can articulate concern without violence. I struggled with that three years ago. By “violence” in this context, I do not mean physical blows. I mean loud tones, words of judgment, sometimes expletives, and personal condemnation of those involved. Because of this process and my deliberate, public account of my journey, I found myself able to remain peaceful, successfully resisted the temptation to fight bully-behavior with anger, and got myself through the situation without escalation or degeneration. I maintained my credibility, and met my own need to get on the flight and make my subsequent connection. I did not stoop to the level of the airline employee’s aggression or the aggression of the unknown passenger who attempted to intervene.
The airline employee might well lie about what occurred. I do not really care. I wrote a contemporaneous account of it which I e-mailed to my son from the plane to make sure that I did not forget details. I spent two hours crafting my letter to the president of the airline. I included each detail and stated only what occurred with little commentary. I know that my account is accurate.
I’ve learned a lot from this voyage, this “year” without complaining. There is a time and a place for protest. The mistreatment of me merited the letter which I sent. I thought about what might have happened had I been a fifteen-year-old traveling alone; a woman in a veil fearful of speaking out due to potential knee-jerk response to her appearance; or a poor or elderly person completely at the mercy of the airline employee without knowledge of potential recourse. Those who cannot protect themselves from corporate abuse of them deserve to have people like me step forward to hold businesses accountable.
I will not pretend that I did not experience concern and dismay. The airline knew that a passenger in a wheelchair had been given a preboarding pass on the basis of disability. The ticketing agent interacted with both me and the wheelchair attendant. The reason that I identify myself as disabled when I purchase tickets and check bags is to get help. The airline should have sent someone to the original gate to assist me, since I had a documented preboarding pass. When I made the problem known to the boarding agent, she should have come forward, treated me with courtesy if not kindness, and checked to make sure that I was all right. She should not have allowed another passenger to come forward and raise his voice to me or grab my arm. Finally, she should not have threatened to lie about my behavior as an excuse for barring me from boarding the plane.
But I did not let my emotions lead me to destructive behavior. I did not meet the negativity levied on me with my own indefensible conduct.
Bullies must be identified. Bully-behavior cannot be tolerated, whether personally, on a commercial level, or in politics. When we take a stand against abuse, we better society. I make no apology for the letter which I wrote. It might be a complaint, but it fits in the category of permissive complaining. I did not write that letter only for selfish reasons. I wrote it because the airline must examine how disabled or otherwise vulnerable passengers are treated. I have a law degree and law firm letterhead. I am articulate. I see that letter as my societal obligation.
In protesting the way in which the airline treated me, I stand not only for myself, but also for others, especially those who experience mistreatment without an avenue for protest. I stand for all of us — and for justice, fairness, and compassion. I stand for humanity.
It’s the twenty-sixth day of the thirty-ninth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.