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Robert Slayton Headshot

Minority Status

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I have transverse myelitis, an extremely rare spinal cord disease. This weekend I attended a meeting of the local TM group, and was reminded of an aspect of life in America rarely understood.

The story goes like this. One of the other members is a very accomplished woman, who travels quite a bit. On this journey, with friends, she contacted a car rental agency and reserved a very specific model. It was a big vehicle, like a town car. The wide doors would help a lot, but the crucial dimension was its low freeboard, so she could easily transfer into and out of her wheelchair. She called several times to confirm the reservation.

But when they arrived at their destination and went to the counter, no such car was available. What about the reservation? Sorry, gone. But no problem, we're giving you a free upgrade, to a big, top of the line SUV. Which, of course, was totally inaccessible. After searching, the rental agency found another town car, a different one than what she had reserved, and still inches too high. After that all she got was, "There's nothing more we can do." Instead, at the next rental firm she got what she wanted, but paid $90 more.

The story ends on a positive note. Of course, she emailed the original firm, asking to be refunded the difference, and about what they were doing so that a reserved car would be flagged in the system before it was released, and to retrain staff. Within twenty-four hours a senior executive replied. A check was being cut, followup would be provided, and if she ever went to that city again, to let him know personally, and he would make sure things went right.

Yet despite this, she said the episode was terribly emotional for her, incredibly upsetting and draining; still was. I knew why.

When you first become disabled you're incredibly aware of your loss, of what you can no longer do. But after a while you get past that, and reenter society. Making accommodations, you go about your business. Everyday life is just as humdrum, or exciting as it ever was. You are a citizen, a consumer, a spouse or parent, just like anyone else. You really don't see yourself as unusual in any way.

Then along come some fools like this, and suddenly you are reminded that you are different, and not accepted by parts of America. At your station in life this is unexpected, and it catches you off guard. Above all, it hurts; bad and deep.

This is what it is like sometimes being a minority. Any minority. Every once in a while, no matter what you've accomplished, someone sees you only as a crip, or a darkie, a lousy immigrant. or whatever. The late Johnnie Cochran told about all the times, at the height of his law career, when police would stop him. He'd be driving a fancy car, wearing elegant clothes, and a squad car pulled him over. The cause for suspicion: being black and successful. At this point you're no longer rich or a top professional, you're just a negro. This is what happened to my friend; she had become a cripple in a wheelchair, nothing more nor less, for the first time since the early dark days of her paralysis. Everything that spoke to the rest of her life was now swept away. That's a rotten feeling.

So when you hear protests from minorities -- any kind of minority -- that might well be what it's all about. Suddenly your life is reduced to only one dimension of your whole, complex being. And what they see is always the worst possible stereotype of that role. You've been put into a small box, and nothing you have, nothing you've done, will let you get the key. Hence the trauma, and the anger. Unfortunately, that what it's like sometimes in America, to feel like a minority in the land of the free.