I was going for a walk when I met a neighbour. He looked at me and said “where’s your walker? Have you been lying to us?”
I wish I could say this was the first time when another person questioned the validity of my disability by visual cues but it wasn’t. I wish I could say this was just a bad joke, but even if he was half joking there was seriousness to the question. As a person with a disability that is sometimes visible, sometimes invisible, sometimes affecting one part of my body, sometimes another, I am made to feel like the times I don’t have a visible disability (specifically when I don’t have a mobility device with me) I have been faking my disability (to what end I don’t know) or that I am not “disabled enough”. It is exhausting dealing with one’s own health issues, chronic pain and disability but the judgements and the accusations (passed off as jokes) and the idea that disability looks like one thing takes that exhaustion level and triples it. Even as I write this I have to actively suppress my instinct to defend my disability, to explain to those reading why I sometimes use a mobility aid and sometimes don’t but always remain disabled. I feel like I owe others an explanation because that expectation is placed on me on a daily basis – but I don’t, I don’t owe you anything. My health, my chronic pain, my disability, my coping mechanisms are none of your business. Unfortunately, I still hear the words, the judgement, the tone and that does cycle through my head on loop, even when I know I should let it go. Even though I have had a disability for two decades, even though I’ve been an advocate for almost as long, even though I teach about disabilities being visible and invisible, I understand there is hierarchy to disability in many people’s minds; a visual test that I don’t always pass and it makes me defensive even as I know I have nothing to defend.
I think about myself, twenty years ago, when I was first trying to come to terms with my acquired disability and how people treated me and judged me and how that was more of a transition than anything else. How one comment, like today’s comment, would have sent me into depression and doubts and humiliation and wondering if I had a “real disability”. I guess it is progress that today’s encounter did not affect me beyond the conversation (and the writing on this post), it saddened me, it disappointed me (particularly as the neighbour himself has a disability) and it frustrated me, but I was able to move forward and go on my walk and not have it shift my mood. My friend said to me “was it just me or was that a very insensitive question?” and I nodded and said yes it was and I thought ‘just one more to add to the mountain that I have experienced and will continue to experience’. The thing is, I shouldn’t have to get used to comments like that, my emotional state staying even-keeled after comments like that shouldn’t count as a win – people not saying things like that should be counted as a win. And so I write this down to give support and a voice to the thousands of people out there who hear insensitive questions on a regular basis, who are made to feel like they need to defend their level of disability or who are made to feel that their invisible disability is not as valid as a visible disability. I write this because if we don’t make people aware of how much damage questions and judgements like that cause, we won’t move forward.
Please, don’t concern yourself with my disability or anyone else’s. Don’t judge them based on visibility – hell, don’t judge them at all. And even if you are joking, don’t – just don’t! It’s not funny, it’s hurtful and it’s ignorant and it needs to stop.