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What is a Disabled Person Supposed to Look Like?

My name is Reeshemah Ford and I am an African American woman who suffers from interstitial cystitis. While trying to live and manage this disease alone, I care for my daughter and elderly father. Although some days are unmanageable, I will not give up the idea that someday a cure will be found. Today I’m fighting to bring awareness to the public because this is a disease that many people suffer with in secret. In my case, the disease causes me to urinate up to 80 times a day. With this condition I have to wear certain types of undergarments, such as Depends. I rely on this because it allows me to function in public for a short period of time. I wear about five Depends at a time, changing about every hour or less.

On the morning of March 27th, I was to board flight #4956 with United Airlines. My flight was scheduled to leave at 6:00am from Fayetteville, NC, with a layover in Washington, DC, before arriving in Queens, NY at 9:38am. Due to delays, none of these times took place. My flight left Fayetteville, NC at 6:30am which had a rippling effect, so I missed my connecting flight from Washington to New York. When I arrived in Washington, the walk to the air train was 15 minutes or more to get me to the gate. When I got to the boarding area, the plane had already left. I immediately began to panic. On this particular day, I had enough Depends to wear just for my trip back home to Brooklyn, NY. As my anxiety and panic began to rise, I spoke to a customer service representative for United Airlines. I explained to her that I missed my flight and then asked if there will be another flight for NY anytime soon. She looked at me with a smirk on her face and said “no, not until 4:50pm.” I explained that I have a medical condition called interstitial cystitis and I am in no condition to wait at this airport for so many hours. Her response to me was “we can give you a ten dollar voucher for food and put you on the 4:50pm flight, that’s all I could do. As well as, I’m not supposed to even give you a ten dollar voucher.”

That’s when my nightmare started. I walked away not knowing what to do and who to speak to. At this point, my Depends undergarment was soaked and I feared that one more urination and my pad would burst and I would have wet my clothes and there is no one to help. I had no extra clothes with me. I’m an American citizen, in the land of the free and there was nothing anyone could do for me. I walked away feeling hopeless, so I called my daughter and my cousin in tears explaining what was going on. By this time, my Depends had gotten so wet and heavy that I had to remove it. By then I knew I was going to be embarrassed and humiliated because I was bound to have an accident. After speaking with my family I decided to insist on speaking to a supervisor, but she also turned me away. They did offer me to go to another airport which was 40 minutes away, but still they couldn’t guarantee that I would get on another flight. This was another closed door for me.

I walked away and sat in the corner and I happened to look up and see a gentleman who was working at the boarding area. With tears rolling down my face, I approached him and asked him to please, please help me! I could see he had empathy for me. He felt my pain and he did not know me. He just saw a woman in front of him begging for help. Again, I explained my condition and what was going on and his response to me was “I never heard of that condition, but I will help you.” I will call the paramedics here in the airport. I began to have a feeling of relief that help is on its way, but then as he’s explaining my situation to the person on the other end of the phone, he hung up the phone and looked at me with disappointment on his face. He said that they told him that there was nothing that they could do for me. My hope became hopeless. Then he picked up the phone again and called a supervisor directly. For a moment I feared that it would be the same supervisor from before, but thankfully it was not.

After he explained to her my situation she came over and introduced herself as Stephanie and asked me again what was wrong. As I was in the midst of explaining my condition again she stopped and said she didn’t need to hear anymore. She asked what I needed and where she could get it for me. She walked off her job to personally go and get me some Depends. When she came back with the package and handed it to me, I felt like a child on Christmas morning. I was a stranger and she never saw me before. She did not know if I was lying or not, but she had empathy, caring kindness, and love in her heart. She and the gentleman were my angels. I hugged her so tight and thanked her so many times because she saved my life. Today I often stop and think what is a disabled person supposed to look like. I don’t need a wheelchair, I don’t need a cane or walker, but what I do need is for people to understand that there are disabilities that are invisible illnesses. IC is very real and can affect anyone. I will never forget Stephanie and the gentleman that helped. I am forever grateful to those two people. Shame on United Airlines for mistreating a disabled person.