Please take a few minutes to read it here.
After I shared the article, a friend (and mom to a son who happens to have a disability) wrote, “I’m sure you and I could both write the sequel to this article with our many stories. I tire of educating people. However, I’d take ignorance to those who are downright mean and judgmental. And then there are those who don’t want their child near yours (as if their disability is contagious).”
Sing it, sister. That’s exactly right. I hear you.
I shy away from sharing stories about rude people and unfortunate interactions because there’s enough negativity and ugliness in the world. If you don’t believe me, turn on the evening news.
Today, though, I will share a sequel, as my friend suggested. I’m not the only one with these stories. It happens all too often.
I wrote the following letter to an administrator at the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) this summer. I have purposely left out the location where this incident occurred and changed a few details. I have never before referred to my son Isaac as “handicapped” but did so in this letter. Read on:
My family and I were traveling and stopped at the I-80 westbound ______ rest area on Friday, July 18 sometime between 11:00 a.m. and noon. We were planning to eat a picnic lunch on the grounds, but we quickly changed our minds after a horrible experience. We were there about 10 minutes, I'd guess.
I have three sons, including twin boys who have autism. As you might imagine, living with autism is difficult for our family, but we do the best we can. We are proud of our children and their achievements. We travel regularly with them.
My 13-year-old son Isaac walked into the rest area building. Our family followed. Isaac has autism, he's functionally non-verbal, and he also has a diagnosis of mental retardation. He looks like any other boy his age.
An older female employee was talking on her cell phone (it sounded like a personal call, but I don't want to assume it was) when we entered the building. While she was on her phone, I saw her mouth the words to my son to "stop playing with the doors." I ignored her. I saw him push the handicapped button. He likes to see the door open and shut. He wasn't in anyone's way, didn't break anything, and certainly was not rude to any other people. I went into the women's restroom. My husband and boys were also in the building using the facilities.
While I was still in the bathroom I heard my husband say to this woman, "He's with me. You need to chill out." My husband does not talk to people in this manner unless he feels threatened.
Earlier in the day the employee had propped open both the men's and women's bathroom doors. The employee accused my son of looking in the women's restroom. If he were looking in, it was because the door was propped open, just like the men's door.
My husband asked her to shut the doors if it was a problem. She said she couldn't do that necessarily. He asked why. She said she needed to leave them open because she was cleaning the bathrooms. I didn't see her cleaning anything because she had been talking on her phone. Certainly she was not cleaning both bathrooms at the same time. Finally she shut the doors, but she did not seem happy about it.
She raised her voice to my husband and Isaac, and her tone was accusatory. She said she asked my son TWICE to stop playing with the "handicapped" doors.
During the conversation, Isaac was sitting and waiting on a bench with his brothers. He understands when people are talking about him. I could tell he felt as awful as I did. He had his head in his hands and was looking towards the ground.
My husband said, "My son has autism and he's non-verbal."
She said, "That's all you needed to say then."
My husband said he shouldn't have had to disclose our son's disability. He said our son was not hurting anything or causing trouble. She commented that her son has ADD. My husband said she should be understanding of the situation then. She said she was understanding . . .
She again reiterated she had asked him more than once to stop playing with the doors. I calmly told her he likely would not respond to her when she made the request.
We left. We didn't eat a picnic lunch there because we were angry and hurt. It was the topic of conversation in our van for the next 20 miles or so.
Current statistics indicate 1:68 children are diagnosed with autism. These children grow into adults. Likely my son is not the first person she will meet with autism, and he certainly won't be the last.
We did not feel welcomed at the rest area. The employee was hostile and argumentative. I will never stop there again. I hope this employee undergoes training and is given feedback about this incident. If her job is to clean the bathrooms, then she should not be reprimanding visitors, especially a "handicapped" person who is pressing a "handicapped" button. Because she offered no apology, I am bringing this matter to your attention. An apology goes a long way.
Please respond via email to let me know how this situation will be addressed.
Thank you for your time.
This situation was different, however. She was downright mean.
Initially I looked at the Iowa DOT website where I found teeny tiny boxes to fill out with my comments. That wouldn’t work. Where that feedback goes is unclear. I’m a better writer than a speaker, especially when I’m on the phone chatting with someone who may not be listening. Plus I wanted a paper trail. I like to have things like this in writing. I researched to find the appropriate person to email, and I pounded out the letter. I sent it via email late at night and then went to bed.
Early the next morning I received a response. I won’t share the contents of his communication in its entirety, but he was appalled by our experience. He apologized for not replying sooner. (I guess he wasn’t checking his email at 2:00 a.m.) He apologized for the way we were treated. He stated that the woman was not employed by the DOT but rather a private company. It didn’t matter to him – he said this behavior will not be tolerated. He assured me he would talk with her employer that same day and would mandate some disciplinary actions be taken.
He apologized again. Then he thanked me for taking the time to contact him.
Wow. I was pleased by his prompt response and grateful for his kind words. He covered all the bases. He assured me he would do everything in his power to make sure it didn’t happen again. It was a big deal to him, just like it was to our family.
When my husband saw the administrator's email response, he said, “Nice! This guy doesn’t take any crap!”
I responded and thanked him for following up with the employer. I said I didn’t want another family to have a similar experience. I thanked him for his prompt and professional response.
Then as much as I could, I let it go.
I don't write these kind of letters often, and I wouldn’t have written a letter if the employee had been remorseful. If she had said, “Gee, I’m having a terrible day, and I’m very sorry for my behavior” I would have let it go. If she would have gotten quiet and mumbled an apology, we would have given her a pass. But it didn’t happen. I have no idea why she was so irate. Isaac had pushed her buttons, quite literally. I struggle to understand how the pushing of the buttons directly affected her during the short time we were there. I will probably never know.
I can only guess that she had been inconvenienced.