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When Disability Is Misdiagnosed as Bad Behavior

Why do strangers keep demanding that disabled people prove they're disabled?
Disabled Parking

In early March, a white autistic man in his 20s got in trouble for eating a cookie. He was shopping at Cub Foods in Roseville, Minnesota, a typical big grocery store, and took a cookie from a "free cookie" display in the bakery section. Then he finished shopping, paid for his groceries, and went back to get another cookie. That's when Timothy Knutsen—another shopper, but one whose livelihood happened to involve training security guards in the proper use of pepper spray—stepped in, holding a can of mace and demanding that the man stop eating the cookie. Thirty seconds later, the autistic man had been sprayed in the face. After Knutsen was accused of assault, according to the charging document, he said that he'd thought the man was on drugs, so stepped in to intervene. (The man Knutsen sprayed has not been named because of his classification as a "vulnerable adult.")

In late April, Alyssa Alda was flying home from Disney World on Spirit Airlines. The trip was hard, physically, as she had just recovered from surgery to fix an intestinal obstruction (a condition related to her Crohn's disease). She was excited, though, because after two years of medical leave, she was returning back where she belongs—medical school. On the plane, she paid for a seat up front so she could be close to the restroom, a medical necessity, but was then transferred to an exit row. According to her Facebook post, which she confirmed with me over email, she told the gate agent that she wasn't able to perform the necessary functions in the event of an emergency. First the man at the gate made fun of her, then later a flight attendant joined in. Alda tells me that they scornfully asked, "So you can't just open a door handle?" "What is wrong that you can't even open an emergency door?" "Are your arms broken?" The gate attendant ripped up her ticket in front of her, demanding that she sit in the back of the plane, far from the restroom. Spirit Airlines would not confirm these events, but did refund Alda her money and offer her a free trip in the future.

Ableist discrimination and bigotry materialize in countless ways, but talk to anyone whose disability isn't immediately obvious and this kind of story pops up again and again. Encounters turn bad because a random individual—sometimes in a position of official authority, other times just a meddling onlooker—decides someone is getting away with something. They cry "fraud." They demand proof. They seek to restore order. Such incidents often result in humiliation or forced disclosure. Worse, as in Minnesota, they can spark violence and trauma.

Alda had planned her trip to Disney World carefully. "I was still recovering from my latest surgery," she tells me over email, but she made the best of it, going slowly and scheduling plenty of naps. She was especially happy "to see Wishes [the fireworks show launched in 2003] for the final time before they introduce a new firework show in May. Disney World is a very special place to my family." On the way home, according to Alda, the trouble started. It seems that multiple Spirit Airlines employees decided that this attractive young woman was making trouble because she wanted her comfy original seat. She was, to their mind, faking disability in order to get away with something.

There's no one way to look or be disabled. When someone asks for an accommodation, believe them.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Spirit Airlines tells me: "Our agents are thoroughly trained on how to assist customers with disabilities in a compassionate manner, and how to handle customers who have been assigned to the emergency exit rows. We have reached out to Alyssa personally and will investigate this matter."

To get a better idea of how things stood with the pepper-spray incident, I called Lieutenant Lorne Rosand of the Roseville police department. He's worked there for 33 years and has never seen an incident quite like this one. "Weird and then going over the top with use of force," is how Rosand characterizes Knutsen's actions. "Especially with someone who should know better. Here you have a defensive tactics instructor and aerosol systems restraint instructor and he's failing on every level." Knutsen isn't talking to the press, so it's hard to know just what was going on beyond the details in the complaint and incident report. Tad Vezner, who broke the story in the Twin Cities' Pioneer Press, told me that, although Knutsen claimed he was responsible for training Cub Foods loss-prevention officers, that's not precisely true. His former company (he's been fired) did have the Cub Foods contract, but Knutsen didn't train in that division.

So if it wasn't Knutsen's job, what was going on? According to the incident report, Knutsen saw the man heading for a second cookie and alerted the store officers, who chose to do nothing. As best we can tell, he then decided to take matters into his own hands, defending perceived behavioral norms.

The outcome in Minnesota is unusual, but the instinct is not. Annie Segarra, who makes terrific YouTube videos about the intersections of disability with race, gender, and other aspects of identity, recently kicked off a viral Twitter thread concerning the constant barrage of micro-aggressions that she notices every time she gets out of her wheelchair. Thousands joined the thread to share their experiences: Anyone who uses accessible parking but who doesn't look sufficiently disabled or who only uses their wheelchair sometimes has encountered the "Good Samaritan" stranger who demands that they prove their disability. It happens a lot in parking lots, because accessible parking spaces are hotly contested proving-grounds for disability. A few years ago, I wrote about a Kanye West concert where, at one point, Kanye refused to continue his show until everyone stood up who wasn't in a wheelchair. One woman took off her prosthetic leg and waved it in the air to prove that she should be allowed to continue sitting.

Spirit Airlines is trying to make things right. The case in Minnesota resulted in an arrest. I worry about the young man though: Will Cub Foods, a grocery store where he clearly felt comfortable, become a place of trauma for him?

We need to learn to expect disability. There's no one way to look or be disabled. When someone asks for an accommodation, believe them. If someone is behaving in an atypical way, pause to reflect whether there might be a disability-related reason. Or just lighten up. Humans are diverse. We do things in our own unique ways. And everybody, disabled or not, deserves a second free cookie.