How do you handle feeling threatened by a disabled person?
November 6, 2012 1:35 PM   Subscribe

I have this nagging feeling of guilt from a situation that happened about a month ago. I'm not really sure what I should have done in this situation, and I'm conflicted by my feelings. It wasn't the end of the world, but it really frightened me and I'm wondering how I could have better handled it.

My SO and I went to the zoo about a month ago. It was during the regular work week, so there weren't a lot of people there. At some point while making our way through I had to use the restroom. We were walking through a fairly remote section at that point, so there were no animal enclosures open, the refreshment stands were all closed and there were no staff members to be seen, but the restroom was open, so I made my way towards the doors. As I was walking up there, I noticed a group of mentally disabled adults sitting at a table. There were several men, and a couple of women. I'm not sure if there was a chaperone there or not. For some reason, I had a bad feeling, but I shrugged it off and proceded to the women's restroom. The bathroom was huge and empty, which was kind of eerie and it made me feel a little on edge. When I walked out of the bathroom stall I had used, there was a man standing in the doorway with his arms up against the frame. He was definitely one of the disabled adults I had seen on my way in. It really frightened me. So, I yelled for him to get the hell out of my way. He didn't move, so I ran towards the door and pushed him out of my way. I don't really know what his reaction was. I was too shook up to have noticed. I ran all the way down the path to where my SO was waiting. I told him what had happened, and he comforted me. He asked if I wanted to go back and say something, or report something, but I was too scared. I felt guilty because the man was obviously mentally disabled, but I can't shake the feeling that I should have said something to someone in charge, whether that be someone at the zoo, or someone chaperoning the group.

Has something like this ever happened to you before? Did I overreact? Should I have done something more? How should I have better handled that situation?
posted by anoirmarie to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you are trying to talk yourself out of having felt fear in that moment, don't. I'm not saying that because "omigod the disabled are dangerous"; you did have an unsettling experience. Yes, he was mentally challenged, but your lizard brain/fear center didn't know that and doesn't care, so your fear is okay.

Ideally, yeah, it may have been a good idea to have taken a couple deep breaths and gone back to speak to someone about "so, uh, one of the guys in that group was sort of hovering around the ladies' room," but your not doing so is also understandable - you were freaked out. People aren't always thinking with 100% of their rationailty when they're freaked out.

So you didn't overreact, and while you maybe could have said something, it is perfectly understandable why you did react as you did. I'd chalk this up to an "I'll handle this a bit differently if it ever happens again" kind of situation.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:42 PM on November 6, 2012 [19 favorites]

I think you handled it just fine; perfectly, actually. Just because someone may be mentally disabled doesn't mean your sense or concern of fear or safety is no longer legitimate.

To answer the part about this happening to me, yes, it did, twice: I used to work in retail as a supervisor, and one of my female cashiers was grabbed by a mentally disabled teenager. His parents weren't stopping him, so I grabbed him and tossed him aside (gently). His parents just shrugged it off like nothing was wrong. [This was many years ago when "calling the cops" never crossed anyone's mind, and I was able to hug/hold the female employee while she cried for an hour without anyone thinking there was anything wrong with that, either.] Lo and behold, two weeks later, the same family came into the store, the teenager remember me, and started attacking me in the store. I tossed him out, and never saw him or the family since.
posted by TinWhistle at 1:43 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You did exactly the right thing. You were afraid of a man who was blocking your way, and you took care of it without harming anyone.
posted by Dolley at 1:43 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sounds like it was an strong instinct call, and you were pretty scared, I wouldn't beat myself over it. It's the kind of thing you can't really anticipate. You probably reacted in the way you "needed" to, according to your guts, and I think it's important to respect that.
Only thing you could have control over, I think, if the situation was to happen again, is your calming down and seeing if you wanted to talk to someone, but it can be hard to do that when you've had such an intense fear.
So again, don't beat yourself up, acting according to your instincts was probably the best thing for you. :)

on preview, I think we're pretty much all agreeing
posted by kitsuloukos at 1:45 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you were my partner, I'd prefer you react the way you did over doing nothing.

Folks who aren't challenged and who ARE up to no good 'interview' you by challenging your normalcy and seeing how you react. React timidly and you set the stage for more problems.

Job 1 is waking up tomorrow, healthy if possible.

Good for you and though I know you not, I am happy you have strength and will.
posted by FauxScot at 1:51 PM on November 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

You did nothing wrong and you shouldn't feel guilty because a potential threat happened to be disabled. I'm happy you came out of it safe and I hope going forward you continue to be safe. Do not feel guilty about protecting yourself or being concerned for your safety.
posted by Sternmeyer at 1:55 PM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

This gentleman's mental disability is his own problem. It doesn't give him a license to break society's rules or violate other people's reasonable boundaries. If he can't handle that, he doesn't belong in society and ought to be removed to a more restricted environment - not as a punishment to him, but simply because society only works when we all follow its rules.

In my opinion, you did the right thing, and have nothing to feel ashamed about.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:02 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

you did nothing wrong.

seems to me you are experiencing a mild case of post-traumatic stress. talking about it here, and with others might help. it also might help to go volunteer for a day with some disabled adults - controlled positive exposure to the fear source can help alleviate the fear.
posted by Flood at 2:04 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: That incident would have scared the shit out of me. I think there is nothing at all wrong with how you reacted. You could have been in some really serious danger. It's hard for me to pass judgment on the self-defense actions of a person in the situation you were in. I think there is a whole very very very wide range and variety of "okay" ways to react in this situation, and the way you reacted was one of them. You followed your instincts for what needed to be done to protect yourself, and it totally worked. So, I'm glad you did it. Random other people in the world would have reacted in random other ways; if that's what they needed to do, I would have been glad about it too.

Are you worried about being a bad, judgmental, bigoted person for being afraid of this man despite the fact that he was mentally disabled? If so, please stop worrying about that. Mentally disabled people can be just as predatory and dangerous as anyone else. Are you worried about being a bad, judgmental, bigoted person for being afraid of this man (or maybe now other men as well) BECAUSE, in part, of his being mentally disabled? I'm not going to judge you for that either. I think this is one of those situations where women might sometimes get policed for not being "understanding" enough even when their own safety is at risk. Frankly though, if someone's behavior is far outside normal, or is erratic, or the person has diminished capacity for self control, or the person has diminished capacity for understanding consequences of actions, or a whole range of other things, it is totally reasonable to be more fearful around that person.
posted by cairdeas at 2:08 PM on November 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

you handled it great. personal safety is non-negotiable.
posted by facetious at 2:23 PM on November 6, 2012

Just because someone has a mental disability doesn't mean that they are automatically not dangerous.

Jerks come in every flavor. There are elderly dangerous jerks and dangerous jerks with down’s syndrome. Don't ever feel bad for protecting/asserting yourself if you feel threatened.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:23 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think it was inappropriate of you to assert yourself in that situation the way you did. I've read The Gift of Fear, and you don't always have time to figure out what produced a feeling of fear, you just have to trust it and react to it and keep yourself safe.

You may want to keep some of your powder dry the next time you have to assert yourself though, not because your perception of danger was wrong or the guy in the door didn't deserve it, but because escalating rapidly signals that you are afraid.
posted by alphanerd at 2:30 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I just wanted to clarify a bit. I think I did feel a little guilty that maybe I had reacted the way I did because he was disabled and I had made some assumptions about him as a disabled person, but he was blocking the only exit out of the women's restroom and that is not normal behavior and definitely cause for alarm. I think I've been feeling more conflicted about the fact that I didn't say anything to anyone that could have taken further action, because it would be really awful if he repeats this behavior or takes it to another level, and though I have no control over what this man does in the future, I could have made someone aware that he was exhibiting abnormal and intimidating behavior.
posted by anoirmarie at 2:41 PM on November 6, 2012

Best answer: Call the zoo, speak to someone in a managerial position.

Make sure you have the date and time handy.

Hopefully this group came through the zoo in a way that can be tracked (like maybe they are regularly there through a school or other institution) and either way, there is sure to be surveillance video.

You should tell the zoo, and hope the zoo follows through with the group. I'd keep following up with the zoo until the appropriate person(s) were notified of this incident, but that is me.

What happened sounds very dangerous and I'm glad you're OK.

I think you are having a little PTSD. Beyond that, I strongly believe you should speak up to the zoo. And maybe this is what is really nagging at you.

That isolated bathroom isn't safe. The group of visitors you encountered needs better chaperoning. But mostly, that area of the zoo needs better security.

Maybe I'm wrong. It always makes me feel better when I get proactive.

Hope this helps.
posted by jbenben at 2:47 PM on November 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

Yeah, I'd feel conflicted, too. But, you can't go back and change the fact that you didn't report it. If it would help you put this event to rest, send an email to the zoo. Preface this by saying that you realize this is after the fact but you just felt like you ought to report it and then just report what happened. These folks may be regulars at the zoo. Maybe the zoo might consider patrolling that area a little more if it's more empty than usual.

Then, try to let the feelings of conflict go. I'm sorry that happened to you. I'd have been just as unnerved and I think you reacted just fine.
posted by amanda at 2:49 PM on November 6, 2012

You don't need to feel guilt. Not because you were afraid, or because you didn't report it to others. You don't know that this will turn into a harmful scenario in the future, you simply don't. So I'm not sure that this incident necessarily warranted a report. So, don't live with the what ifs. That's rarely helpful, or necessary. I think the your worst fears are rarely realized wisdom can apply to something like this, too. Someone perhaps had a responsibility to watch and make sure no wandering into the women's bathroom occurred, but that responsibility does not necessarily transfer to you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:54 PM on November 6, 2012

Best answer: I used to work with developmentally delayed/challenged adult clients (2+ years), and I want to assure you that you did exactly the right thing and should not feel guilty or question your reaction. I would personally feel threatened in that situation (and have often refused to work alone with certain clients for that very reason).

Naturally, most people with developmental disabilities do not pose any kind of threat to others, but the minority who are violent tend to act out in frightening and unpredictable ways (in my experience). It was not uncommon to regularly deal with physical assaults stemming from that population. I have been out with clients in public when they have, without obvious provocation or triggers: kicked/hit/spit on strangers, inappropriately groped people walking by, thrown their drinks on strangers (the poor lady on the receiving end of the drenching started crying, and she asked me if she had done anything to cause it. I can't describe how low I felt in that moment because she had done nothing and was still the target of someone else's inexplicable rage.)

We did our best to prevent any of those incidents from happening, but sometimes, our clients had had their meds adjusted, had low blood sugar, had been assaulted/provoked by other clients earlier in the day, or were just bullies or jerks in general (as much as I hate to say that). I hope this helps in some way; as someone who used to get punched in the face for a living, I can definitely sympathize with your experience.

Also, jbenben is spot on - the responsible agency and the zoo should be contacted.
posted by tanuki.gao at 2:56 PM on November 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

I think you did nothing wrong, including not reporting it, but if it's still bothering you a month later I think I'd call the zoo and say, 'I know this is weird, but this happened to me and it has been nagging at me, and I feel like maybe I should have reported it so here you go'. And they'll probably do nothing, because nothing much actually happened, but on the other hand, maybe it's happened before and it'll put something else in context.

But you will have placed this information in the appropriate hands and you can ease your mind.

It's not necessary to report every weirdo interaction like that but this one is nagging at you, it is indeed quite creepy, and maybe absolutely nothing, but it doesn't hurt anything to report it and maybe you'll feel better.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:12 PM on November 6, 2012

Response by poster: I told him to move. He remained in place blocking the doorway to the women's restroom, with his hands placed against the door frame. It was extremely intimidating.
posted by anoirmarie at 4:09 PM on November 6, 2012

Has something like this ever happened to you before?

Something like this happened to me once. I was in a 2-stall public restroom in a riverside park in NYC (so, not completely devoid of people, but they were rather few and far between). I heard a person quietly walk into the bathroom and then enter the stall next to me, but I couldn't see their feet - odd, almost like they were trying not to let me see them. So I peeked out through the crack in the door and into the mirror directly across, where I could see that the other stall door was open about 4 inches. I was really freaked out. I knew I had heard a person enter the bathroom. Now this person was in a stall, hiding their feet, not making any sounds, and had the door cracked open as if to say "nope, no one in here!". I waited a bit, getting increasingly anxious, hoping this person would make a sound and allay my fears, but there was nothing. I ended up sprinting out, and as I passed, I saw men's shoes under the door, pulled way to the side where I couldn't see them from inside my stall.

I didn't report it to anyone, and I am sorry to say it never even occurred to me until reading your question. I think you handled the situation just as you should have - you felt threatened, you verbally told him to get out of your way, then you pushed by him. It's not like you hurt him.

And no, you don't have to "ask nicely" if someone is blocking your exit from a confined space (that's he's not even supposed to be in!) in a secluded area.
posted by coupdefoudre at 4:12 PM on November 6, 2012

Autumn89, if you read the question, you'll see that she did tell him (not ask him) to move out of the door, and he didn't:

I yelled for him to get the hell out of my way. He didn't move, so I ran towards the door and pushed him out of my way.

She did not "ask nicely," that's true, and if someone were blocking off my access from an isolated room where he has no business being, I would probably not ask nicely either, because that is a BIG social/safety boundary for him to cross, regardless of his level of development ability.

When someone traps you in a bathroom, "niceness" need not be a priority; getting safely out of the situation should be. There's an widespread expectation that women should be "nice" about all kinds of inappropriate and even potentially dangerous things, including a possible immediate threat to her safety --- like a large person blocking her freedom to leave an isolated space that is socially designated as off-limits to him.
posted by Elsa at 4:14 PM on November 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure (of course, having never been in this position I can't say with 100% certainty) I would have handled this situation differently than you did. Perhaps very differently.

That said, I still don't think you did anything wrong here. You did the best you could for you in that moment. That's the best that any of us can do.
posted by phunniemee at 4:14 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I notice the OP repeats one simple fact 3 times: A man was blocking her exit from the restroom.

Which is exactly the crux of the matter. Everything else -- society's utter abandonment of the disabled, the zookeeper's responsibility, the extent of disability, feelings of guilt, wisdom of reporting the event, alternate strategies, etc, etc, etc -- all pale before this fact.

It's not blaming the man to say the OP's action was justifiable. If the poor fellow had sat on a hot stove, or stuck his arm in a bear cage, he would suffer a consequence. This is no more and no less.

Does our society fail miserably to care for the least of us? Of course it does. But in a moment of danger, that social issue can't be resolved. What can be resolved is getting out of a room when a man is blocking the door.

The fact that you were disturbed by this testifies to your humanity. Don't whip yourself.
posted by LonnieK at 4:54 PM on November 6, 2012 [22 favorites]

Best answer: You did nothing wrong. I have also been in a similar situation. I was out running in a downtown area at dusk. I would argue I wasn't being more or less careless than most other people-- there were (and are) plenty of runners that are female (of my stature and smaller) running after work in this area. A man in sloppy clothes (I say this because he wasn't in "runners gear" but he was in sweats and a tee) ended up running about 30 paces behind me while I was on a side street... and I just got a bad feeling. No one was around, I started intentionally taking turns, he followed. This went on for at least 4 blocks. I just tore into the entrance of an apartment building lobby and started pounding on the door, drawing the attention of the desk person. She turned on the intercom and asked me what I wanted, I started to cry and try to get the words out, and she just let me in.

Did I act like a crazy person? Probably. But, I'll never know whether or not that man was bad news bears, and I don't care. I'd rather be alive and look slightly crazy and leave a random man offended, than be raped or worse.

I agree with the aspects of this story that everyone is stressing here: First, there is no reason for a guy to be hanging around the entrance of ladies bathroom if he's not waiting for a woman he knows. Secondly, whether or not he meant anything by blocking the door or not, it's an incredibly threatening gesture. That door was your only exit, and he was blocking it! On top of that, it's not like he was casually yelling "Is my daughter in there?" or something like that. He was behaving like a creep. Whether or not he is mentally disabled is a non issue, because mentally disturbed people come in all packages. Your human survival instinct kicked in, your brain started screaming "something is wrong with this picture, I want OUT" and you got out.

I know it's easier said than done, but don't beat yourself up. You did what any other assertive woman would've done. Screw social norms, you're still in one piece and that's more important than some hurt feelings!
posted by unmouton88 at 6:42 PM on November 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

Go ahead and forgive yourself for getting the hell out of there immediately once you got safely out of the bathroom. Obviously you were scared and traumatized.

But yeah, jbenben's right, you should call the zoo director about it. You'll feel better and it's the right thing to do. At BEST, the guy was scaring a woman in the ladies' bathroom and that needs to stop, even if they just close that isolated bathroom. And at worst, you may have escaped a very nasty situation and giving the zoo a heads up may prevent an escalation.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:01 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the time when my wife goes to one of those sort of open to the air at the top dimly lit isolated structure public bathrooms, I escort her to a spot about ten feet away from the door so that she knows I'm around. I'm a dude over 6' and even I think they have kind of a creepy vibe at times even when there isn't someone standing in the doorway. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask your SO to escort you or be around within shouting distance when you don't feel safe.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:12 AM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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