A Hostage to Ignorance
Birthdays are a time for celebration. Some worry about getting older while others feel embrace getting older. Two years ago, the feeling of dread filled my conscience as I approached my birthday. Not because I was turning the big "40". But for a completely different reason. This year I needed to renew my driver's license.
Yes. You might be wondering why would this mundane task strikes fear. Renewing a license is a relatively simple task at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Yet it was one that I had been putting off going until the last possible minute. My anxiety swelled considerably, and I asked my husband to come along with me. Both for moral support and if anything happens, I would have some backup.
In 2011, I went out on my lunch break to head to the DMV to renew my license. As usual, the lines were long. That means I would be cutting close to getting back to work on time. I got my number and completed the short renewal form while waiting for my turn at the counter.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, my number came up. I smiled at the man behind the counter and handed him my renewal form and my old license. Ready to get this done and be on with my day. There were two things on my mind being late for work and having to take a new picture. I was rather fond of my old picture and didn't want to change it. When you have a good photo of your license, you want to keep it. Right?
I stood beside the counter, hands clasped together, holding my wallet, waiting patiently with a feeling of relief washing over me because I was a moment away from being done.
A puzzled look appears on his face. Then came the question about my renewal form. Something that made perfect sense to me, but for him, and I mean stumped.
He said to me. "I am having trouble with this question here. It reads have you lost any limbs since your last renewal? and you answered, No."
Perplexed, I replied, "I have not lost any limbs." I looked at my arms as if to gesture that they were still there. The man, always looking very confused, continued to study this form intently. He was looking back and forth from the paper to me a few times. I was not sure what was happening at this moment. I was running through in my head what the definition of a limb. The dictionary states it is a noun. It means an arm or a leg of a person or a large branch of a tree. As I am not a tree and all my arms and legs were intact, everything should be fine. Right? Well, apparently, to this man, it was not.
The man questioned me again. "Have you lost any limbs?" I replied to him, calmly and directly." No, I have not lost any limbs!" Shaking his head from side to side in confusion as if somehow I answered his question incorrectly.
The man then went on to explain to me that I did not have all of my fingers. Wiggling my only two fingers in front of him, I replied, "Yes, these are digits." I was then informed by the man that he was not sure that he could renew my license. I answered the check box No to having lost any limbs. Yet, I quite clearly had only two fingers. Which meant to him I had lost my limbs. Therefore, I answered incorrectly.
Tension started to build inside me. I could feel a nervous tingle of warmth spread throughout my body and up to my cheeks.
"Were you born with this?" The man stared into his new line of questioning. I answered, "Yes." He then asked. "Did you lose them in an accident?" Feeling very confused, I answered him shake my head, "NO!"
My heart is pounding, and I can feel that my breathing has become shallow and quick. I thought to myself, "What the heck is going on?" With all the worst-case scenarios racing through my mind of how all of this was going to play out. I attempted to try and refocus to stay calm. I decided to turn my head and look around the rest of the DMV. Nope, bad idea! Everyone was watching and leaning in. Their eyes intensity focused on me. As if I were a TV drama unfolding before their very eyes. Not only was this man holding my license hostage, but the people at the DMV were also entirely in my business. Could this get any worse? Yes. The answer is Yes! The man proceeded to ask me again in a very harsh and stern voice, "Have you lost any limbs?" I replied in a firm voice, "NO!"
Ok, I'm am now really upset. My body is trembling, and I was trying to hold it together. I'm on display for the whole DMV. Other employees stopped their work and began to watch the event unfold!
The man's voice became irritated quickly. He asked, "Where did you get your license, and did you take your driver's test here in Syracuse?"
"Yes, I answered. I got my license in Syracuse with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles."
I figured that he would be able to access this information on the computer and see that I had a valid NYS license that I was renewing. I even told the man that I passed my driver's test in Syracuse on the first try.
His head shaking, he continued the questioning, "Have you taken a driving course, and did you take the driver's test with a DMV driving test employee?"
I replied with an increasingly shaky voice. "I completed driving lessons through a certified driving instructor and took my driver's test here in Syracuse with a DMV test employee."
I'm screaming in my head, and my whole body is quaking. I had answered all of his questions, no matter how stupid they were.
The man looks up at me and says, "I need to talk with a supervisor."
He left the counter and went to talk with a woman. He was pointing in my direction, and the two looked up at me and just stared. Shaking her head, the two left, disappearing into the back offices. My stress level is at an all-time high, and I am on the verge of tears. He was emerging from the back offices. A different woman now accompanies the man. The two come to the counter where I was nervously waiting.
The woman says. "There seems to be a problem. You have answered No to having lost any limbs." I replied to her, "I have not lost any limbs!"
This Supervisor proceeded with the same line of questioning as the man before. I answered each one of them the same as before. Tears are now welling up in my eyes. I have no idea what to do; I am all alone and frozen in shock. I muster all the patients and grace I can. Because at this point, yelling would only make things worse. Taking an intense breath and look behind me again. It's still the same. Everyone is still locked in, watching and listening to everything.
The two standing in their ignorance before me now hand me a pen and ask for me to pick up a piece of paper and show them how I write as proof that I could do it. The Supervisor then asked me to show them how I drive. By having me pretend that I was holding onto an imaginary steering wheel. The two watched my every motion intensely as I held up my hands and pretended to drive. Utter humiliation!. After completing their tasks, the Supervisor informed me that she would not give me my license until I took a test drive with the driving test worker. She told me that I was a danger to myself and others on the road.
Besides myself, crying and pleading for my renewal. I explained that I drive for my job, and I cannot work unless I have a license. I tell the man and the woman that my son is at daycare, and I have only one car, and I will not be able to pick him up.
The Supervisor tells me that she remembered something. The man who does the driving tests is out to lunch, and he will not be able to do the test with me. I am going to lose my license to these two idiots. Oh, Shit! I'm at a complete loss, and I don't know what to do.
The Supervisor turns to the man, points to the computer, and tells him to go ahead and process the renewal anyway." and she walked away, not even glancing in my direction. The man asked for payment and told me that he would be nice and keep my old picture because it was a good one. Just like that, it was over. He handed me a temporary license. Closing my eyes and taking a long deep breath, I made my way to the exit while the whole DMV was watching as I walked out the door.
Returning to work, filled with outrage and visibly flustered, I decided I needed to call in and make a formal complaint to the New York State DMV office. I found the number for the disability department at the head offices. Let the operator know that I needed to file a formal complaint. The response I received was not one that I was expecting. On the other end, the person asked if I had trouble with access getting in or out of the DMV building. I told the person, "No, I didn't have any trouble with that." On the other end, the woman said to me that the disability office was for issues of accessibility only. I gave a quick rundown of what happened at the local office. She said she was sorry, but if it does not have to do with accessibility getting in or out of the DMV, they do not take the complaint. I asked if there was anyone I could call about the issue. She told me, "No." She then hung up the phone. I was dumbfounded. How could that be that a disability office only handles assessability issues and not other disability concerns?
It seems that many areas in our country need to improve their disability policies. The DVM was no exception.
I left it at that. I needed to get back to work, and what was I going to be able to solve at that moment?
After all these years I can not forget what happened at this office. I wished that I had someone there with me. To witness what happened and be there to help stop it because I could not do it alone. I was mad that I was not strong enough to put an end to it. I feel like I allowed it to happen. When I started to reflect on this, it was not my fault. Why am I responsible for the action of these two people? Am I not taking the blame for their actions?
Out of all the nasty encounters someone can have, this was by far not the worse thing that has happened to an individual. It is still an experience that stays with me to this day.
With my husband by my side, I renewed my license. And it was boring and uneventful, just as it should be while at the DMV.
Ignorance is bliss only to those who are ignorant. In the wake of their callowness, they leave the wreckage of discrimination, prejudice, and anguish to people different from themselves—Nieve to how their words and actions affect another. For their discomfort at the moment is all that matters. And if they are uncomfortable with someone different, it is the difference that must be the problem.
Disability hidden away gives no chance for lasting change. There can be no equality without balanced representation.
The language we use can encompass a more profound positive meaning that is essential to our equality. Teaching and learning through experience helps to nurture new and lasting understanding in our communities.
Representation, visibility, integration, development, education matter the most when it comes to change. Sharing our stories can help build empathy that our society desperately needs to have peace and acceptance for all.
Love from The Fingerless Kitchen