“Oh, he’s at the hospital again,” one of the women in the little gaggle of people walking past my table announced. “Again?” another of the business-wear group commented. Some of them had changed out of their dress shoes to beat-up sneakers. A lunch group or something like it, off for an hour’s break. One of the guys laughed. “He’d better come back with like a broken leg or something this time!” The rest of the group laughed too. “Something big.” “Yes, it doesn’t count unless it’s a full cast!”
I was on the top floor of the building housing a variety of student support services and academic judiciary offices.The little group was joking, in the rather mean-spirited way of much younger and less professional people… say, elementary school students. They just happened to do it in front of a student with invisible disabilities. Nice to know that their colleague’s misfortune was thought of so compassionately, and that their understanding of real injury and illness was restricted to the immediately visible.
“She’s always taking medications. Obviously, too, like taking a lot of pills at committee lunches or the department party. Something’s wrong. I mean, a lot of women take a pill every day and all, and that’s fine, but this is a bunch.”
This conversation happened with a colleague, who tried to backtrack when I (couldn’t help it, mate!) pointed out I took a lot of medications as well. Too bad it ended up with him even deeper in it than when he started, of course … his bumbling efforts were more humorous than hurtful, especially as there were a few other women who cheerfully joined in and helped him dig himself deeper every third word.
“I know your dietary restrictions – they are very familiar to me too, because I have some – so I’m sure you can find something to eat here because I can.”
Another very kind effort from a very kind person who still couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that two people with disabilities might have very VERY different disabilities and paths through life. Instead, everything had to be viewed through the lens of her illness. She never really did get that graduate students are not usually protected by the FMLA or that mast cell diseases are much different than avoiding spicy food after 3 pm.
“Oh, so you mean there’s really something actually mechanically wrong? Oh!”
A college administrator who suddenly seemed to understand and be much happier to grant my request for help restructuring my classrooms. I couldn’t help it – I rolled my eyes. Fortunately for me, he was facing the other way. I do so love it when other types of disabilities are judged as less “real” than physical ones, or when it has to be some type of injury that the administrator relates to (like dislocating joints, for example, or sprains) to count. I’d already explained POTS and MCAS by that point, but those apparently didn’t count as “mechanically” wrong. It wasn’t until I remembered and explained JHS-EDS 3 that everything seemed to suddenly click. I probably need to work on my communication, but sometimes I just really don’t want to …
I and another student are seated, slumped and exhausted, on those orange carpet-covered chairs common to 75% of student waiting areas. We’re tutors, nearing the last shift of the day, waiting for our respective students. They’re so late it’s looking like we are not going to be tutoring after all (read: not getting paid after all, either). I’m feeling a bit down about this. The other tutor wonders why I’m upset about having free (unpaid) time, and I explain I missed my bus and had to pay for a Lyft into school so I could work that evening. I at least wanted to recoup my losses.
Tutor 1: “Oh, where do you live?”
I told the other tutor
Tutor 1: “Oh, that’s so close! It’s not far from campus at all. You could have walked that!”
I was tired. I didn’t really want to go into explanations. “No, I can’t. Definitely not in time to get here for work.”
Tutor 1: “I don’t understand. It must take as long to drive as walk. But I guess your legs are shorter than mine!”
Really, really didn’t want to go into it … but I wasn’t much shorter than her, and the way she was now staring at my legs meant she’d figure that out soon. I didn’t want to be categorized as being lazy, either, so … “No, it’s not that. I just really can’t walk it at all, honestly.”
Tutor 1: “I don’t get it.”
I gave up completely. “I know I don’t look it, but I’m actually very sick. I cannot walk from my apartment to the campus in time for work. It’s not contagious, so you won’t catch it, don’t worry.”
Tutor 1: “Oh! I never would have guessed, because you look fine!”
A classic response. At least I already have a selection of answers pre-drilled, and wonder of wonders, here came a student. “Um, yes, I know I often look ok, thanks very much.”
“But you always seem to manage … ”
Thankfully my student had arrived and I was rescued before I had to explain that my ability to tutor was not proof that I wasn’t sick.
Ableism means discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It isn’t a word I particularly like, because everyone’s definition of “discrimination” tends to vary just that little bit, and it’s so very easy to accuse someone of it. It can range from systemic abuse (such as a corporation not following ADA law) to casual comments about how inspirational disabled people doing ordinary things are. (In my case, I’m actually just fine with being told that I’m inspirational or heroic, because most of the time my mind is screaming at me that I’m a failure. If there are ever other voices chiming out a different message, I’m usually far too grateful to be offended.)
I’m being unfair here, because not only are all of the above based on real things that happened to me this semester, most of the people involved had no idea what could have even been construed as wrong about their behavior. Despite the bit of me that feels like a small tattling child, this is part of the reason I decided to write this post – because some of them will not realize what they did was quite wrong. In this light, in this form, it’s easier to see that endlessly interrogating someone and then using her ability to complete her work and look physically put-together as a marker for disability is wrong. Judging someone on taking the medications they need to survive is wrong (or having the number allowed be related to their sex!). No one in in a professional setting especially should joke freely about a colleague’s physical status – even if that colleague might have ordinarily joined in on the joke.
In the end, the best path forward is probably one I struggle with myself continually. Wait, and then in the depths of the smallest square of privacy you can find, think about your latest sly witticism. If you wouldn’t want it said about yourself, then don’t tell the joke out loud to Mr. Oral B.