Dear Well-Meaning Busybody. A PSA.
Hi there. Here is your uncomfortable reminder that when you’re attending the accessibility hour at your local grocery and you see someone who is not visibly a senior citizen, not visibly using an assistive device, and/or not visibly accompanied by a support provider, it’s a good time to ask yourself why they’re there. If your first thought is that they’re perpetrating an elaborate scam, it’s also a good time to remind yourself to move on to your second thought which hopefully will be that invisible disabilities exist.
If invisible disabilities are not on your mind then you enjoy the privilege of living life without having to deal with chronic pain, concealed assistive devices, intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injury, autism, or any of the *many* differences that make living the life you enjoy not possible.
Pity is not needed here. Consideration of others is. The largest minority in the country is the disabled community. Nearly 26% at last count and that doesn’t cover people who don’t check that box on the form. That statistic refers to actual people and, at better than one in four, definitely includes someone you know.
What’s more relevant to you at this moment is that just about every person will experience limitations at some point in their lives, including you. It’s a “we” situation, not a “they”. Disability is not a choice and it’s not a misfortune. It’s you managing some part of your life that isn’t the same as most of the people around you. It’s regular everyday life. It just is.
Clearly, consideration of others is not people’s strongest character trait. Empathy is a learned skill. Here’s a nifty way to improve yours.
Start by imagining the future time when you will want to go out of your house to get food because you need to eat like everybody else. Imagine having to acquire gear to compensate for the lack of consideration in public spaces built and operating for that 74%. Then, when you’re geared up, imagine heading out and all that might entail. Tired yet? We’re not done, not by a long shot.
Imagine yourself arriving at the shop after all that prep that likely involved other people’s time then being challenged on your right to exist in that space by a well-meaning busybody. Worse, imagine having lost sleep being so anxious about the inevitable confrontation and demands for explanations and sometimes proof that come with just going to the places everyone else gets to go that you’re super keyed up and not at all your usual self.
Then when the confrontation inevitably comes — the one you’ve rehearsed responses for and that brings up all the other encounters, the “less-than” cultural messaging and the negative self-talk borne from it all — imagine then having to endure a public meltdown in the very space you need to be to get what you need to feed yourself.
You dig deep for the strength to power through, get your supplies, and get home which takes a while because you need to rest. After you get home, you need to rest some more — hours or even days — before you can resume regular life. Of course, everyone is different so your imagined walkthrough will look different from someone else’s imagined walkthrough and different from every disabled person’s actual life. Try not to judge, k?
If you can put yourself in that one scenario, in your imagination, for just a moment of your day, then maybe there’s a chance for empathy to grow. Until then, now more than ever, hold yourself back from assuming people are taking something from you by existing outside of their homes in public spaces. It’s not a good look.
Instead, take a moment to remember that just as no one is privy to your internal and private life, the less visible lives of others are not always worn on a t-shirt. Be the good person you know you are. When you see that person parking without a placard and find yourself striding over to put them in their place, try a little empathy and understanding instead.
That’s a look 100% of people can get behind.
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To inform your empathy journey:
“People With ‘Invisible Disabilities’ Fight For Understanding” by Naomi Gingold on NPR (with audio)
“Autistic Meltdowns Are Not Tantrums” from the ICan Network.