This post won’t be anything entirely unique to this blog. In many ways, I feel like I’ve said all of this before, which when you’re writing a blog in a space prone to information overload, (AKA the internet), with everyone’s opinion on everything readily available, it can feel futile to bring up a topic I’ve spoken on before and that I know other people have spoken on as well.
I might not have anything new to say, but when I seem to continually face the same ignorance from people around me, (mostly adults nonetheless) and when microaggressions are being shown in what should be normal interactions for anyone, I begin to wonder if there might actually be a lack of information on this topic. Maybe this is where someone will read about microaggressions for the first time, and I hope in some way I can bring light to what they are and how to avoid displaying them, in my case toward people with disabilities.
There are a lot of ways microaggressions are shown, and given their name, most people don’t realize how prevalent they truly can be. Microaggressions are defined as, “everyday, subtle, intentional–and oftentimes unintentional–interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias…” (www.npr.org). With the two interactions I’m going to be talking about in this post, the microaggressions displayed toward me were, in my opinion, entirely unintentional.
Both of these interactions happened to me while holiday shopping over the past month and a half I’d say. For the first one, I went out to the stores with my home healthcare aide, who is there to help me with transportation, cart management and reaching shelves that are too high for me. In this way, she does nothing more for me than a friend would do if I was shopping with them. Additionally, we’re only 2 or 3 years apart so it doesn’t entirely appear that I’m with an adult who needs to watch over me as if I’m a child.
For anyone who uses a home healthcare aide, they aren’t using them because they are children or deserve to be treated as such. They are full adults and they are capable of making their own choices and navigating social interactions. And yet, when other people see a person with a disability with someone who appears to be “taking care of them”, it turns what should be normal interactions into childlike interactions.
I was checking out, entirely in charge of my items and managing my own money trying to make casual conversation with the cashier, but the extent of that conversation on her end was “how cool my wheelchair was” because it’s pink and the wheels light up. Now, I get this a lot. People see the light up wheels and the pink on my chair and in passing they compliment it. It does annoy me, but I can brush this off. However, with this particular interaction, the woman I was talking to said something, numerous times, that completely rubbed me the wrong way. She told me how much she wished she “had one of those,” meaning my wheelchair.
I’ve also gotten this one before, but never from an adult. In the past, I’ve gotten it from children, mainly little boys, who might think my wheelchair looks like a fun ride or a skateboard. I can understand a kid saying this, but getting it from an adult did nothing to make me feel comfortable and in that moment I wanted nothing more than to make my wheelchair the dullest color it could be and to remove my light up wheels. I did feel strange, and I did want to hide away. I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing. Children don’t know or understand the word paralysis…I thought an adult might.
Did this woman really just say she wished she had a wheelchair? Maybe I should’ve replied with, “I wish I had those,” and indicated to her functional legs.
I don’t sit in my wheelchair because I have a choice or because I’m lazy and think it’s a cool way to get around. I don’t have a choice but to use it. No one should wish for a wheelchair because when you wish for a wheelchair you can’t just wish for the cool color and pretty light up wheels. You’re also wishing for a disability. You’re wishing for a way of looking at life that isn’t always ideal; of not being able to do everything that other people can, and a life that just because it might be my “normal”, doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Being in a wheelchair is more than the shiny and pretty exterior I put on my chair. Paralysis means struggles with incontinence at 22 years old. It means more doctor visits and painful procedures than most people, and surgeries over the summers between your school years, rather than hanging out with your friends. It means accepting that a lot of places in this world aren’t handicapped as they should be and now, the thing that looked convenient to you is what’s keeping you from going everywhere your friends might want to go. Sure, it’s probably nice to have somewhere to rest when your legs are tired, but you don’t wish you had a wheelchair, you wish you had something convenient.
With this interaction, I wish the woman had looked at me as a person, rather than as “someone in a wheelchair”. The conversation then could have been centered around the holidays, COVID, or something about my outfit, hair or makeup if she liked them. Someone’s disability is never a topic up for discussion in quick interactions within customer service or with someone who doesn’t have an adult who can later continue to discuss the topic (such as a kid who might ask me about my wheelchair). They are deep, complicated and personal. They affect each person who has them differently and what you say to one person might not be appropriate for someone else. In general, topics that cannot be explained for remedied in quick interactions should not be brought up. Disabilities is on that list.
The second interaction I wanted to talk about happened only about a week ago. I was shopping with a relatively new friend of mine who I’d never gone shopping with before. When this interaction happened, it was surprising to my friend and all too familiar to me.
I was looking at a pair of booties in a rain boot style and a woman who’d been helping us a few other times that day with my sizing, and who I’d directly interacted with, turned to my friend as I was looking at the shoes I wanted and asked her, “Is she sure she wants those?”. Not only did she ask my friend a question she should have asked me since I was the one buying the shoes, she spoke about me as if I was not there or was incapable of making my own decision to purchase the shoes.
My friend, even though she was taken aback, did the best thing she could and turned back to me, putting the conversation back in my hands.
Once again, it was only a brief interaction but it was an interaction that communicated to me that this sales woman thought I was somehow incapable or more impaired, and I can’t help but think it was because of my disability.
It is potentially true that the sales lady thought my friend was older than me, even though she’s about 2 years younger. Because of my smaller stature, I am usually mistaken or assumed to be younger than I actually am, but regardless of why she treated me the way she did, a microaggression was involved. Whether it was my assumed age or my disability that incited it, it was there nonetheless and I hope for a time where this won’t be an issue within our interactions with those around us. When I later face timed my sister, who’s also in a wheelchair, to complain (and almost laugh) at the whole thing, she wasn’t surprised in the slightest.
When someone is treated differently, looked at differently or talked to differently because of something out of their control, and those who are facing these interactions are acclimating to them, there’s a problem there. These interactions should not be something that we eventually don’t realize are being done to us, and if we continue to brush them off the people inciting them will continue to participate in them. It’s okay to be bothered by something that doesn’t feel right or comfortable to you because even if something is “different” about you, it doesn’t mean you deserve to be treated differently. And if you’re reading this wondering how you can interact with someone who has a disability in a positive way, here’s a hint: it’s easier than you think.