Are We Ever Disabled ‘Enough’ When You Don’t See Our Disabilities?
It is not so much that these things are invisible as it is that people are trained to hide them, and society is conditioned to look away from them.
ThisisAn Unquiet Mind, a monthly column by s.e. smith that explores disability identity and its interaction with the world at large.
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But it is an ally I can drop, appearing, once more, to be nondisabled to the casual eye, and that is something I am intensely aware of.
A funny thing happens as I shift between these spaces, evident and nonevident: Passing does indeed make me strangely invisible, unremarkable, just another person drifting through this troubled world of ours. Picking up a cane, though, makes me invisible in another way: People are so eager to avoid acknowledging the very existence of disability that they will quite literally fall all over themselves to pretend we don’t exist. I’ve watched ambulatory people walk directly into wheelchairs, had people in line at events bump into me, been made invisible in a different way, a fascinating and infuriating discovery, to go from one form of invisible to another.
People are frightened of disability and all it represents, invisibilizing us in a fascinatingly dualistic way: They strive to avoid learning about or recognizing the signs of less evident disabilities, just as their attempts to act casual around people with very visual markers of disability often wind up creating the opposite effect, as they turn us into blank spaces in the landscape.
A few months ago I was at an event held on the second floor and I stopped at the front desk to ask where the elevator was, because it wasn’t obvious. The receptionists were deep in conversation and didn’t notice me until I was right there in front of the candy dish. I got a sharp look—a seemingly young chubby person, lazily asking for the elevator instead of taking a flight of stairs one story up—but they grudgingly pointed the way. It was only as I walked away, tick-tick-ticking my way across the slippery marble floor, that their faces flushed with embarrassment for judging the cripple.
What might the world be like, I wonder, if we could stop judging everyone for asking for accommodations, if we could silently build a place that is welcoming and inclusive for all bodies, if we could stop treating accommodation and respect like finite resources that will run out if we don’t hoard them? “Be kind,” says an oft-misattributed quote that seems to have arisen from the zeitgeist, “for everyone around you is fighting a hard battle.”
Seen and unseen, I do not want people to pity me or feel awkward when they realize that I am not what they expected. I just want them to tell me where the elevators are, and keep their thoughts about why I am using them to themselves.