I had mixed feelings when TFL rolled out the ‘please offer me a seat’ badge. I thought it was a brilliant idea; there have been days where I was in agonising pain, and there is no way anyone travelling would know that really, I needed to sit down. I knew there must be lots of people that the badge would help, however, I didn’t know if I was ‘bad enough’ to deserve one. Surely there were people that needed the seat more than I did? My friends tried to encourage me into getting one, but I was resolute in my refusal. Then one Friday I had a few too many glasses of wine and ordered one at 2am.
In many ways, I’m glad I did. On most occasions where I need a seat, I can have one. Many people are very gracious and understanding in offering me their seat, and I hope they’re aware of how transformative that act of compassion can prove when I’m having a difficult day. There are of course those who huff, but the people that refuse to move are in the minority. Often, people stare; some are just curious, trying to spot what’s wrong (perhaps not realising that the entire point of the badge is to make others aware of an impairment that cannot be seen), others make me feel uncomfortable for reasons that I can’t always pinpoint. However, overall having the badge has been a positive experience, and reduces some concerns I have about using public transport during flare-ups.
A couple of weeks ago, that changed. I was back to travelling in rush hour after a string of six upper body subluxations in less than three weeks. My sling was in my bag, just in case. I was in pain, but hadn’t needed it and was trying to avoid wearing it unless it was imperative. I was wearing my badge; standing up on a jolting bus and holding onto a bar could easily cause another dislocation, and the shoulder injuries have had a really negative impact on my back. The pain was entirely upper-body, and I was walking fine. I probably didn’t look injured or unwell, but then that is the reason the badges exist. I found a space where I could lean at the back of the bus stop, and was minding my own business.
‘What does that badge mean?’ I heard a voice, and wondered if the question was directed at me. Before I had a chance to turn around, the reply came.
‘Oh, it’s for people to ask for a seat, but don’t worry, you don’t have to prove anything to get it. You don’t have to offer her a seat.’
Shocked, I turned around to make sure it was me the girl was referring to. She made eye contact and smiled wryly. It was.
‘I personally don’t see why anyone would need one.’
The two then descended into a roleplay whereby I ‘asked’ them for a seat and they refused, laughing heartily at my expense. It was all pretty unpleasant and I didn’t know what to do.
There was a part of me that wanted to tell them, in no uncertain terms, to f*** off.
A slightly more moralistic part of me wanted to reason with them. I wanted to explain that, although I looked fine, that carrying out everyday activities can cause dislocations, that my condition comes with a side whack of chronic fatigue, and that sleep is pretty hard to come by when you can’t lie down on your recently subluxed shoulders. I wanted to tell them that I had never been so exhausted, that typing for ten minutes caused significant pain and that I’d just done eight hours of it. I wanted them to see that they had assumed that because they couldn’t see my pain, it couldn’t be real. I wanted them to know that they were wrong.
The part that won out in the end was the part of me that had resigned myself to not changing their minds. If they were brash enough to conduct a mini-play about me to my face, me telling them that my arms hurt was going to have no effect whatsoever. I left to get the tube, acutely aware of my vulnerability and my inability to verbally (or physically, who knows where it would have got to had I said something) defend myself.
These were not teenagers, for whom ignorance and lack of empathy could be somewhat excused, but women (probably) in their thirties. I’m struggling to see why they behaved in the way they did. Was it a power thing? Were they goading me? Did they enjoy seeing me walk away?
I can’t speak for them, but I can for myself. That interaction lasted for less than two minutes, and it made me feel worse than any of the six subluxations did. I haven’t worn the badge since.
Intolerance, in its many ugly facets, is on the rise, in-part due to a political landscape where hatred isn’t just tolerated, but promoted (Brexit, Trump anyone?). When bullies are in charge, bullying behaviour filters down. If we all held ourselves accountable for what we know, think and say, the world would be a much more pleasant place for all.
I’ll wear the badge again at some point; it’s one bad experience and I won’t always let it stop me from asking for what I need. I still think the scheme is a great one, and I’m sure it’s helped a lot of Londoners get around safely and with minimum discomfort. The badge serves as a reminder that there are limits to what we can understand just by looking, and I’d invite those two women at the bus stop to remember that.