When Your Disability Involves Your Brain
I have a soft, mushy spot in my heart for dogs, military vets and and people with mental illnesses and brain injuries. So, when I went to the AOL home page to retrieve my email and saw a photo of a young man with his arm around a dog and this headline – “Airline Staff Allegedly Abused Veteran” – I had to click.
In the story, Jim Stanek, a disabled vet who served three tours in Iraq and now has PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) describes how he and his service dog Sarge were treated by United Airlines.
It is one of those flight-gone-bad stories that makes you want to escort the boards of directors at all the major airlines onto a plane, seat them in coach, close the doors, disable the bathrooms and leave them on the tarmac for eight hours with only peanuts, pretzels and water.
Stanek was trying to get back to his home in New Mexico after a fundraising event for Paws for Stripes, an organization he co-founded which provides service dogs for vets with PTSD and TBI. He got stuck in Dulles International Airport for a couple of frustrating days – flights cancelled, re-scheduled, cancelled, re-scheduled and on and on. It sounds like the kind of experience that would have driven the Dalai Lama to cursing.
So, there is Stanek, stuck in Dulles without any food for Sarge, and running low on his own meds. It was not a good situation and it got worse when a couple of startled airline employees twice kicked Sarge – who was wearing a custom service dog vest made from one of Stanek’s Army uniforms.
Crowds trigger Stanek’s PTSD and there were frustrated, angry crowds of passengers trying to get on other flights. Because of his TBI, Stanek has a hard time reading. He doesn’t do well waiting in lines. And he is the first one to admit that despite his best efforts and therapy, his PTSD-fueled anger can go from zero to 100 in no time at all. Which is what happened after an airline employee asked him if he was “retarded.”
After he got home, Stanek made a YouTube video of the recollection of the incident. It’s 18 minutes and 36 seconds long. Normally, I wouldn’t watch a YouTube video that was 18:36 seconds long. But I did. Then I cued the video back to 16 minutes and 48 seconds. I wanted to hear him say this again:
“We need to get to a point where people understand that just because some of us disabled vets don’t look disabled – I have both my legs, both my arms – but I am still disabled. You can’t see all my wounds but I still feel I need to be treated appropriately. I’m not asking for a red carpet. Just treat me the way I’m supposed to be treated. Treat every individual with a disability the way they should be treated.”
Jim said he made the airline employees made aware that his disabilities: PTSD and TBI. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t require Jim to do that but it does prohibit airline employees for asking how he is disabled. Still, Stanek told them about his disability. You see, people who are disabled by illnesses and injuries that don’t require a white cane or wheel chair often are not taken as seriously as people whose disabilities are obvious.
That is the way it is with many mental illnesses and brain injuries. You can’t see the illness or injury. But, believe me, you will see the acute symptoms of our disabilities if they are not afforded the same respect as disabilities that require mobile oxygen tanks.
Jim is not proud of what he said and did. I am not proud of the stunts I pulled in my manic phases or the things I said – or was told I said – when I was in a drunken, alcoholic blackout. We don’t want to be mentally ill or have brain injuries or PTSD. We don’t want to be, pardon my French, assholes. Just give us a shred of respect so we can respect ourselves enough to ask for help. And when ask for help, for God sake, help us.
After watching that video I asked myself, if Jim had been in a disabled vet with a white cane and a seeing-eye dog, would he have been treated differently?
Stapleton, C. (2012). When Your Disability Involves Your Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/depression/2012/07/when-your-disability-involves-your-brain/