You owe them your attention

It’s difficult to truly tell if someone has a disability without listening to them first.

by John Thomas

Late last June, security at Memphis International airport threw a disabled woman to the ground and arrested her.

Her mother pleaded with agents, attempting to convince them that her daughter was resisting simply because she did not understand what was going on or what they had planned to do to her. Agents didn’t listen to her pleas, and now a six-figure lawsuit sits at the feet of the Transportation Security Administration and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

It is time for us to take a moment and recognize that — for those with disabilities or mental illness — duress has various manifestations, and many people have different lexicons by which they communicate and understand events. An invisible illness can block someone from complying with authority figures and can affect everyday societal interactions.

It is impossible for us to know what allowances or accommodations are required of a person if we don’t attempt to listen to them.

Future technological adaptations may allow us to more effectively listen to and communicate with each other — despite mental, physical or linguistic boundaries — but for now the onus is on us. We must tread carefully before enforcing standards and assessing punishments.

Prejudices and barriers will always exist across groups of people — communication is a complex phenomenon. But if we make a concerted effort to stop, ask, listen and learn about each other’s circumstances, hopefully our actions will reflect empathy, kindness and warmth.