Monday, March 7, 2016

Next In Line: The Intersection of Disability with Asshole Customers and What Should Already Not Be Okay

In case anyone that has been following this blog (HAH! Followers.... I crack me up...), I'm no longer a grad student. My program ended up pushing me out (and no Mom, I don't have grounds for any substantive lawsuit). But that doesn't mean I stopped thinking academically about life and situations I may find myself in on a daily basis. Like one I found myself in the middle of on the way home a few weeks ago. 

I stopped at Target for a few things before hitting the highway: lotion, shaving gel, TP, etc. There were a surprising number of people checking out at such a late hour, so the cashiers were all kind of backed up and doing their best to get people out the door in a timely manner. I got in a line with two people in front of me, a gentleman in a suit that I'll call Silver Fox from now on (because he was probably in his mid-forties but damn handsome, and the salt-and-pepper hair gave him a very Richard Gere kind of look) in the middle of being helped. And a younger guy in line behind him, wearing one of these specific Dragon Ball/Z/GT shirts: 

Yeah, you've probably seen them, and to the uninitiated in the ways of the Dragonballs (insert dirty Lord of the Rings joke here, right?), the shirt is a mockup of the outfit the Good Guys wear (think of it as their dojo's uniform) (and yes, pedantic fans, I know, it's called Turtle Training School and run by Master Roshi). This guy also had on a hat with a patch in the image of Totoro on it, so I'm calling him Anime Dude for the rest of this post. 

The cashier (whom I'll call Cashier, so as to give him a "name" here, too) was a man probably a few years older than me (God, I'm officially in my 30s now...), and from listening to him interact with Silver Fox, I could tell he has some sort of developmental disability, accompanied with some sort of mild speech impediment (starting words with hard consonant sounds like hard "c" or a "b" usually involved a stutter). He was being pretty jovial, though, and Silver Fox was smiling and engaging pleasantly in the conversation that Cashier was making; I came in late to the conversation, but it seemed like they were just talking about their mutual love of cheese (I can only presume Silver Fox was purchasing some?). When Cashier told him to have a nice night, Silver Fox said, "You too, son," and grabbed his bag and walked away, smiling.

As Silver Fox was leaving, a woman not much older than me put a hodgepodge of stuff on the conveyer belt: some fruit snacks, an energy drink, diapers, and a thing of baby food. So while I'm a feminist and I don't think a woman's identity is based solely on her motherhood, I'm going to call her Tired Mama (because she sure did  look tired- I smiled at her in an "I get it" kind of way,  and she sighed and smiled back). 

Then Anime Dude's turn came, and after the usual, "How are you?"s were exchanged, Cashier asked, smiling up at Anime Dude (who was a good four or five inches taller than him), "So, that symbol on your shirt, is it Chinese or Japanese?"

"Japanese," Anime Dude said, frankly.

"Aaaah," Cashier said, enthusiastically, "okay, cool! Yeah, when they look like that, I figure it's got to be one or the other, so a fifty-fifty chance, right?"

"It's Japanese,"Anime Dude snapped, kind of jerking his head and his hands to emphasize it. His whole aura was prickly and hostile, and it even caused me to jump back a bit, and I was already a few feet away (because I hate it when people crowd me as I'm being checked out, so I try to provide the courtesy I prefer to others). 

"Oh," Cashier said, looking down now, "sorry." And his body language went from open and excited to closed off and sad, maybe even a little scared. I noticed that while he had maintained eye contact with the Silver Fox at every chance he could, save when he absolutely had to look at the screen or some other thing he was using to do the technical parts of his job at that moment, he was now staring at the things he was scanning, and the counter, and anything else besides Anime Dude he could look at (but, I should note, not anyONE else- he was focused on his station). His shoulders were slouched, his head craned downward.

After a few long, uncomfortable seconds in which  Tired Mama and I exchanged, "Did he really just do that?" looks, I finally couldn't take it.

"Well," I said, toward both Cashier and Anime Dude, "actually," and I tried to sound as authoritative as I could, "that depends. See, Dragon Ball-Z," and at this point, I turned directly to Anime Dude, "and yes, I recognize where that shirt comes from, I get it." And then I turned toward Cashier now, "Dragon Ball-Z, the show that shirt comes from, is a Japanese show, but  the Japanese language has three different  alphabets, one of which is based off of Chinese characters. And the symbols on that shirt," and I pointed at Anime Dude without looking at him, "are from the alphabet based off of the Chinese stuff." At this point, I moved a little closer and turned my body so that if Cashier wanted to, he could look at me and  not have to look at Anime Dude at all while still doing what he needed to in order to finish the transaction (which wasn't much, as they were in the transaction phase at this point). "So, it depends on how you look at it. You could say it's Japanese because it's the Japanese use of that symbol, or you could say it's Chinese because of the original use of it, a Japan-ized version of a Chinese thing, as a way of putting it."

Cashier straightened up like a flower blooming and smiled a little again. "Reeeeally?"

"Yup!" I said, smiling, "I took Japanese in high school, so I know all kinds of stuff about that sort of thing." 

Cashier's smile got even bigger. "Wow, I had no idea! That's so cool!"

"Not really," I said, chuckling, "I'm just a nerd that's into super nerdy things, and fixing mistakes is one of them." I looked pointedly at Anime Dude, who was now the one looking down a little. We made eye contact, though, and then he darted his eyes away.  

"Nah," Cashier said, "that IS cool! My New Year's Resolution was to learn something  new every week, and that makes two things for this week, so thanks!"

"Wow!" I said, "That's a really great resolution! Most people pick things they don't stick to, like losing weight or exercising. Lord knows I have tried that."

At this point, the receipt was printing, and as soon  as Cashier handed it to Anime Dude, who already had his bag, I moved into Anime Dude's space to "suggest" he get out. He went around the edge that's parallel with Cashier, and said, sounding defeated, "You have a good night," to Cashier. Cashier looked a little wary as Anime Dude kind of bowed to me and said, "And you too, ma'am." He looked up at me just before scampering off with a very apologetic look on his face.

I turned to Tired Mama, and she had a kind of smug grin on her own face, as if to say, "Hah, you showed him!"

I spent the rest of my time at the register talking to Cashier about his snow boarding trip from earlier that day and how cool he must be because I know I would spend more time with my butt in the snow than my feet on the snowboard if I ever tried that because I'm so clumsy. I could feel Tired Mama's eyes on me the whole time, and when I finally looked at her, she had a kind of... well... motherly look, like she was proud of her baby bird for flying. Cashier was genuinely funny and earnest, and I didn't pretend to laugh at his jokes, and couldn't have been more sincere when I said I hoped he got some good rest that night when he made it home. 

I knew I was justified. Anime Dude had been a jerk. I mean, Silver Fox had been joking and smiling, and Tired Mama seemed as shocked at Anime Dude as I was, and pleased with how I handled it.

But when I got to my car, I was like this on the drive home:

Seriously, I am still amazed I didn't crash... again... Ugh.

ANYhoo, the whole thing brought up so many emotions for me, on as many levels.

The most general is the interaction between a friendly cashier/person in customer service and an asshole customer. Cashier had been nothing but sincere and pleasant, and for absolutely no reason, entirely unprovoked, Anime Dude snapped at him. I don't care how shitty your day has been, it is 100% not okay to take it out on someone else; and if you catch yourself doing it, you fucking call yourself out and apologize. That doesn't make it okay, but at least it lets the other person know it wasn't them, and it makes it easier for them to move forward.  

This shit happens to me all the time. It's annoying, and I get it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't bother me at least a little. I've had people yell at me for nothing and snap every time I tried to appease them, and a few times they were bad enough before starting to tell me everything that they had on their mind (that had nothing to do with the store they were in, by the way), I even said something along the lines of, "Well, that has nothing to do with me, and I'm trying to make this experience as pleasant for you as possible, but that's easier when I'm not getting yelled at."

I actually had something like this just a few days ago- a gal came in and was super curt the whole time we were interacting, and the fact that she was shopping for a trip that was the next day made any solutions I offered with respect to ordering what she wanted impossible didn't help; I didn't want to ring her up, she had been so rude, but I did, and so I said, "And since I seem to have done nothing but get on your nerves and disappoint you today, I'm going to give you this coupon." She got bug-eyed and apologized, saying she was annoyed with her husband when she walked in, that must have been why she was so rude. I never said she was forgiven; I just nodded, said, "Ah, I see," and kept doing my thing, to give her the same message: That I had nothing to do with what happened with her husband, and she had been rude to me for no reason as I was bending over backwards trying to find what she wanted. She felt guilty, and seemed distressed. And to a certain degree, I felt bad, but not very much: She kind of deserved to realize she had been a shitty person to a super nice one, and it was entirely unwarranted. 

So Anime Dude. My pointed look and "mistake" comment that was totally for him, obviously, were meant to send that message: That he had been shitty for no reason to a perfectly, frankly exemplary, person behind the register- because not every cashier actually makes jokes and conversation. And I'm fairly certain  he got the point, what with how he basically ran off with his tale between his legs. And I'm happy about that. Anime Dude's behavior was 100% Not Okay. And us retail workers need to stick together, and any time we can educate the assholes we deal with is a win. Right?

But the other, deeper level, and the reason I was such a blubbering mess on my home has to do with disability. I saw my little brother in Cashier in so many ways. High-functioning, curious, sweet, sincere. For my little brother, being a cashier would be peek achievement level. And I hate it. Not because I think he's "above" that in some snobby way, but because I know he'll be in situations like the one I just saw. He'll get his own Anime Dude, that snaps for no reason, and he'll think  he did something wrong, but he won't know what. And he'll be as sad and apologetic as Cashier was. Because he won't be able to understand that it wasn't him, his customer was just a jerk, unless someone standing right there can tell him that immediately. And even if he tried explaining it later, he may not have the vocabulary and grammatical skills to express it in a way that someone besides a trained professional or a person in our family would understand well enough to reassure him it wasn't his fault. 

And that enrages me and makes me  want to scream and sob and break a whole dinner set or just knock  over anything knock-over-able in my general vicinity. 

I was proud and relieved I was there for Cashier, but I can't be there every time, and I won't ever be able to be there for my brother. 

I hate that we live in a world where customers can just be assholes and get what they want. But I hate even more that we live in a world that then makes people with disabilities like my brother feel guilty for that behavior. That allows them to feel that way. Because they don't have the comprehension to see that they didn't do anything wrong, that they did everything right. A world where people like my brother, people that need it more than others, can't defend themselves. A world where we put people that are already vulnerable, that already experience all sorts of systemic abuse, into situations where they are supposed to tolerate abuse like that.

This actually relates to the whole Orange Debate: Those oranges that are pre-peeled for convenience also happen to be more accessible, so they're beneficial on multiple levels. Well, this is the reverse: The fact that cashiers are expected to just take it (even though corporate handbooks claim otherwise, that they don't tolerate abuse and stuff, their actual definition of "abuse" really just comes down to overtly threatening language and physical attacks; being super shitty and snapping and even insulting doesn't cut it) is doubly-hard on people with lower cognitive abilities, since the people with disabilities working in customer service are even less likely than non-disabled persons to recognize they hadn't done anything wrong. And  by perpetuating this "the customer is always right" bullshit, we're actually perpetuating a system of ableism.

Because the system doesn't require an apology to the cashier. There is no remedy in the system for the genuinely distressed or hurt feelings a cashier with disabilities may feel as a result of the combination of their shitty customer's behavior and their own cognitive comprehension levels. There is no recourse for a person with disabilities that entirely, 100% unjustly believes they hurt someone else. That person just goes on thinking they upset someone, and that customer goes on with their day, being shitty to other people and not getting any kind of lesson on manners, respect, or humanity. 


I mean, think about it. What if Cashier had snapped back at Anime Dude? Anime Dude could then have complained and had him fired. And Cashier is already in a precarious state: Unemployment and poverty rates for persons with disabilities are leaps and bounds higher than other demographic groups, even when taking into account things like equal levels of educational attainment (so to put it differently, a PWD with a BA is less likely to have a job or more likely to be underemployed than someone without one). This is exactly how intersectionality works. Customer service workers are already lower in the pecking order and prone to being treated like crap by a shitty customer; a person with disabilities is more susceptible to them and less likely to at least have comebacks like I did with the gal who was pissed at her husband. I mean, if I snapped back, I am certain I could get another job, were I to get fired. But if Cashier snapped back, if my brother snapped back, not likely, or at least with much more difficulty.

Because I don't buy the "equal opportunity employer" line. If every company that claims they're "equal opportunity" actually was, the statistics wouldn't be so skewed against persons with disabilities. That's capitalism. These companies don't want to hire (or promote) persons with disabilities for any combination of these, and I'm sure many other that I'm forgetting, reasons:

1) Accommodations may be "too costly."

2) They may assume less output from disabled employees.

3) Whoever is doing the hiring at the ground level has at least latent, if not blatant, ableist tendencies that influence their hiring process.

4) They fabricate statistics to avoid investigations by any organization that may be monitoring them for discriminatory hiring practices. 


I don't  really know how to end this. Except to say that customers really shouldn't be allowed to treat people working at where they're shopping/eating/whatever like shit, especially for stuff that's out of the hands of the people working there. But it's exceptionally vile when the target of the poor behavior is a person with a disability. And I recognize I'm saying this from my non-disabled, fully-employed position; but I can't help but picture my little brother with a mop at a McDonald's getting screamed at because someone just clogged the bathroom he had cleaned less than an hour ago, and  him crying because he didn't know what he had done wrong and had just checked on that bathroom and it was fine...


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