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Back in April of this year, I experienced an older woman making the assumption that I didn’t need the priority seat I was sat in, on public transport.
Despite there being many other free seats for her to sit in, including priority ones, she rudely said to me “Would you move so my husband can have that seat?”
Shocked, I looked up and, faced with confrontation that caught me off guard, my heart jolted. I opened my mouth to try and explain that I am a priority too due to my health conditions, but before I could, her husband pointed out two other priority seats opposite me and so they sat there instead. However, she still couldn’t sit down without reiterating to me to how much more entitled to the seat she was, saying “You’re sat in a priority seat you know. We’re priority,” pointing at herself.
I again, I wanted to explain my situation but the words wouldn’t come out and I froze. With anxiety rising and sudden tears in my eyes, I was frustrated with the situation but also myself for not standing up against her unnecessary rudeness and ignorance.
There are so many reasons someone might need to sit, reasons you can’t know just by looking at them, that this rudeness is unacceptable.
As someone with a few health conditions that can affect my day to day life, on this particular day I was struggling with bad fatigue, nausea and dizziness and so could not have stood for the twenty-minute tram journey to work. And with so many empty seats on the tram, didn’t have to.
When I got on, I collapsed on the seat nearest to the door, a priority seat, I felt relieved to have a chance to rest and catch my breath.
The seats labelled as priority seats, are done so for those who require a seat more than most of the general public, such as the elderly, pregnant and those with health conditions.
Demonstrated in my reaction to facing the assumption that I was not in need of my seat because I’m a young person and my conditions are invisible, I experienced stress, anxiety and emotional upset. I felt attacked and I especially felt uncomfortable with the confrontation experienced when this woman had no idea how much I was struggling with my health that morning. I also felt frustrated that I didn’t defend myself. I felt I had failed in that way.
To cope with the experience at the time, I wrote it out in another article, which helped me to process my frustration about it, but what has remained since is a new anxiety relating to using the tram.
In the past few months however, I have noticed that I tense up as the tram approaches and it’s much more of a big deal for me to get a seat. I’m much more anxious about it. I have also noticed that I feel paranoid if someone sees me take a priority seat, as I wonder if they’re making the same assumption the older woman did before. That I’m a fraud because they can’t see my invisible illnesses.
As the tram approaches, I eye up any empty seats, not just priority ones but any that are free, before the tram doors open so that I can make a bolt for them. But if I don’t make them, I have to get off the tram and wait for the next one because I just can’t stand for the journey. It’s not a choice I’m fortunate to have like many others, at this point in my health journey. I’m still figuring things out to improve my health.
It’s not unusual for me to try and fail getting a seat on three trams in a row, as it’s so busy with people going home. But I have no choice as standing for the journey leaves me at risk of passing out or using energy I just don’t have to spare. Things that healthier people probably don’t realise.
And so just today, I eyed up three free seats as the tram approached, got through the doors and almost made it to a priority labelled seat before an older man got there before me and gave me ‘the look’. Perhaps he wasn’t looking at me as if to say ‘I deserve this more than you’, but after the experience a few months ago, can you blame me for feeling paranoid that that’s what he might be thinking?
So after a quick look around the tram, I saw no other seats were free so got off it and waited for the next. Except I was filled with panic. And before I knew it, I was having a panic attack because I didn’t get a seat, and I was worried that people were judging me. I was also panicking about having to attempt it all again with the next tram.
Focusing on the smell of fresh rain in the air and the chatter of people walking by, I eventually managed to calm the panic down. Another tram approached and I could see there were plenty of seats, but as I got on and took a priority seat, I was still uneasy. For the whole journey home I kept my head down and couldn’t wait to get off at my stop.
You see, the ignorant and inaccurate assumptions an older woman made about me a few months ago, about my health and entitlement to a seat that makes managing my health conditions that bit easier, has instilled a new anxiety and fear in me. It also has me subconsciously feeling as if I’m always having to prove my entitlement going forward and more so than anyone with a more obvious, visible reason. Because my health conditions are invisible.
It’s one thing to have to wait for another tram home because there’s no free seat and no one is to blame for that, but it’s another thing when you wrongly make assumptions about someone you do not know, who is as entitled as much as you are to help and support.
There’s a saying I’ve heard a few times, which is relevant here: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Caz / InvisiblyMeOctober 29, 2018 at 10:16 am
I’m so sorry you’ve faced such ignorance too. I don’t feel I ‘deserve’ a priority seat because of this sort of thing, and I look fine so I must be fine, right? Even when my joints are burning and I’m about to collapse and I need to sit down, I’ll end up standing. This is the problem with invisible illness and it really pervades how we feel about ourselves too when we get laden with judgement, ignorant assumptions, guilt over it, feeling we need to explain and justify ourselves when really we shouldn’t. That quote is absolutely spot on – “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Suzanne MicheleOctober 26, 2018 at 9:50 pm
I’m 51 and I am living with a handful of invisible illnesses. I rarely go out and about without help, as well as I use a cane. One would think that the use of a cane, which is a visible sign of being differently abled in some form or another would make one “safer” from scrutiny; however, it’s exactly the opposite. It actually seems to be that it gives people a visible reason to question you and decide for themselves whether or not you need it, or any other type of accommodation. Sadly I must state that it’s been my experience and observation that the majority of the population feel that it’s their God-given right to scrutinize anyone who, for whatever reason, may need an accommodation. I pray that someday people will learn to be more forgiving and accepting and less judgemental.
Thank you so much for the wonderful things that you do, Rachel, for bringing information and awareness to the population!
Rachel HillOctober 29, 2018 at 9:58 am
Sorry to hear about your experiences Suzanne. Thank you for your comment though – the more we talk about it the more we can make others aware.