Gate B4 at Hartsfield International

My son, Benson, and I arrived at our connecting gate to Raleigh-Durham. We were about an hour and 15 minutes early for our connection and sat down next to each other pretty close to the gate for our final leg home after spending Thanksgiving in Seattle. Benson settled into his iPhone and I sat skimming Facebook. Then a woman in a wheelchair was placed next to my seat. The wheelchair agent looked at the woman and said, “Are you all set?” The woman in the wheelchair was silent. The wheelchair agent looked at me with an expression of Well, I guess that’s it and left.

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About 5 minutes later, the woman in the wheelchair started speaking in Spanish. I wasn’t sure who she was talking to but there was no one around responding. I spoke up and asked, “¿Hables ingles?” (Do you speak English?). She replied: “No” and asked where the wheelchair agent was. I responded in Spanish that she had left. The woman then explained that she could not see. So there I am, sitting at gate B4 next to a blind, Spanish-speaking woman in a wheelchair. I felt, at that moment, that I was the only one in the world responsible for this woman and that I needed to make sure she got where she intended to go.

Here are my lessons from that experience:

Language.  It’s been over a decade since I had to speak Spanish on a regular basis as the Human Resource Director for a Mission Foods tortilla manufacturing plant. My Spanish is rusty. It did not matter. I had enough to figure out that she didn’t speak English, she could not see and that she was headed to Raleigh-Durham. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the perfection of speaking another language, reminding yourself to use the correct tense and the proper form of “you” (tu is more familiar and usted is more formal). It didn’t matter. Language is language, and any form of communication was better than what the rest of the folks sitting at the gate could provide. I know if I was in Miami, I could have found someone to help me out. But messy and imperfect or not, we were able to communicate. Use the language you have right now and quit worrying about whether or not it’s perfect.

Information.  It was important to relay basic information like what time it was, what time the plane would leave, and where it was headed. I was glad that she was at least headed to Raleigh-Durham. I wasn’t sure what I would do if she was at the wrong gate. I kept updating her with the time and what was going on at the gate. As soon as the gate agent was there, I walked up to her to let her know that: A. This woman did not speak English and, B. She was blind. This was important information and the gate agent thanked me. She said that it was not indicated on her ticket at all which would have helped everyone to make sure she got where she wanted to go. Be sure to relay important information.

Connect.  The extent of my airport Spanish was exhausted in about 2 minutes. So, I decided to ask where she was from, where she was headed, and what it was for. Turns out, she was headed to Burlington, NC and lives in Veracruz, Mexico. She was headed to Raleigh-Durham to meet her brother, her niece and her sister. They were coming from various parts of the United States for a reunion. Her journey had taken her from Veracruz to Mexico City to Atlanta. Now she was hoping to make it to Raleigh-Durham to meet her family. I was astounded that she had traveled so far all by herself. I was glad that I connected to her story. If I had not spoken Spanish, I would have thought she was a crazy woman, because it’s not necessarily obvious when someone is blind. She didn’t acknowledge people because she couldn’t see them. Take the time to connect.

Responsible.  As soon as they started boarding the plane, the gate agent came over and took the woman in the wheelchair onto the plane. I was relieved that she was on the plane. I never saw her when I boarded later and never saw her get off. I saw several wheelchair agents by the airplane door with various names written on paper as I exited but I had never asked her name. I felt responsible for her. How would I know if she met up with her family or not? I cannot tell you how relieved I was when I got to baggage claim and I saw her surrounded by family as we all waited for our bags. It’s amazing how we can feel responsible for something completely out of our control. I wasn’t that woman’s daughter or sister. I was just another human who happened to speak Spanish.

I can’t tell you how happy I am that this had a happy ending. I’m sure she would have made it to Raleigh-Durham without my help but it felt so gratifying to be a part of the end result. It also made me appreciate that we don’t always know if someone is disabled or doesn’t speak the same language. It’s so easy to jump to conclusions and not investigate further. I’m glad I did.

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