A Moment In the Grocery Store

I was in the grocery store recently when I spotted my friend Karen1 with another woman. We met up with each other in the yoghurt section, and I said hello to Karen, but Karen didn’t introduce me to her companion.

Which, normally, I would have thought was rather odd.

But Karen works as an aide to a woman with intellectual disabilities. And I suspect that she’s used to people pretending that the woman with her doesn’t exist, or expressing no interest in her, or behaving rudely, and so got in the habit of not introducing people2. Despite the fact that, as a general rule, when you are with someone and you encounter someone else and everyone does not know each other, introductions are in order.

So, I turned to Karen’s companion and said “hello, I don’t believe we have been introduced.”

Her companion had been staring into the contents of the shopping cart, but she looked up when I spoke, and she smiled.

“Oh,” Karen said. “This is Nina3.”

“Hi Nina,” I said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m s.e..”

Acknowledging the existence of another human being doesn’t need to be hard.

  1. Not her real name.
  2. Which is a really sad state of affairs, for an aide to be so tired of encountering ableism that she erases the presence of the person she’s working for when she’s in public.
  3. Also not her real name.


  1. Rendering some people in our society invisible is so commonplace. The only other people I see this kind of thing happen to on a regular basis are children. They also often get talked *about* (but not with), and are not introduced as equals.

  2. hsofia – yes, totally! My mother still disappears me like that all the time. I’m pretty sure it’s the “child” thing (despite the fact that I’m a grown-ass woman now) not the disability thing, but it’s hard to know for sure which is causing her to treat me like that.

  3. I always assumed that the not introducing PWDs to other people was some kind of professional ethic among aides. Something about confidentiality (like, Nina is not your friend so maybe it’s none of your business that Karen is her aide). When I am with some kind of professional helper, they don’t introduce me to anyone they meet either, and it never occurred to me that this would be out of ableism.

  4. That’s an issue which had not actually occurred to me, Astrid! And I feel like a complete goose for not seeing the obvious, so thank you very much for pointing it out.

    You’re right, there is a confidentiality aspect to such interactions; for me, it feels really rude to talk to someone and act like someone with that person doesn’t exist, or to walk past someone without saying hello, and thus I would have felt really uncomfortable either not addressing Karen at all because she was with Nina, or talking to Karen and acting like Nina wasn’t there. On the other hand, if I’m, say, waiting in my accountant’s office, I wouldn’t expect to be introduced to the client who is leaving (although this is a small town so chances are we’d already know each other).

    The grocery store is a strange space because I think of it as a social one, and thus have trouble placing professional relationships (like aide and client) in that space. And, of course, the dynamics are reversed when it’s the other way around and I know the person with disabilities, but not the aide (which also happens sometimes!).

    Not having worked with an aide, I obviously can’t speak to that experience, so I’m glad to read something by a reader who does use aides. In my case, I think that I would prefer to be introduced in a situation like that (at very least “This is s.e.,” no need to tell my life story or disclose confidential information).

  5. While it can be different to the a situation involving a PWD and their aide, I used to work as a Foster Care case manager (often with children and young people with disabilities) and we were strictly not permitted to introduce the children to ANYONE who wasn’t a professional directly involved in their case management. It didn’t matter if I was down the mall with the child/young person or where I was. I wasn’t allowed to identify the child in any way, or allude to the fact that I was their case manager or anything remotely like that. Most times it was fairly easy as I didn’t wear a uniform of any sort and I could keep my staff ID under my shirt but I hated that I had to basically ignore what I consider to be good manners by not introducing the child I was with when I encountered someone or if someone asked. Eventually I decided I would introduce the child as ‘my friend’ if I did encounter someone and if the child decided to introduce themselves by name then I wasn’t about to stop them. I figured it was their right to tell someone what their name was! Part of the issue is that this (where I live and worked) is a small town and people knew what field I worked in and so could make assumptions about any child I was seen with (that they knew wasnt my own child), thus violating the client’s right to privacy. A total minefield. It was all about confidentiality and the like but it did often makes things quite impersonal.

  6. I’m with Astrid and Bri on this one.

    Due to HIPAA laws, when I’m working as an aide, I’m not allowed to introduce my clients to people I know (and in fact am supposed to not really talk to people I know/walk off when the situation presents itself) and I’m not allowed to introduce myself to people that my client knows (though they may choose to introduce themselves or introduce me). I’m also not allowed to identify that I’m working. These guidelines have been in place at my old job (where I was working with people with developmental disabilities), as well as at my new job (working with people with brain and spinal cord injuries).

    I basically face rather large fines (the situation you described could be 100$ min if she didn’t know (and “couldn’t” have known) she was violating HIPAA, but due to all the classes and inservices we have to go through about these laws, it’s likely that it would be the next category, which is a 1,000$ minimum…by the feds…and my employer would likely be fined as well), losing my job, etc. for violating HIPAA laws (even for doing something like leaving my paperwork in my car…and then my car gets stolen…I can still get fined/fired for that). Rightfully so (even if they do cause a complete minefield of issues in small towns, with regards to polite gestures of introducing others like in this post, and in other situations), as they are in place to protect privacy of the PWD.

  7. @freakingdork – Wow! Good (for me) to know.

  8. The same goes for my sweetie’s caregivers. When we bump into these lovely people off the job, they’re often with their other clients, who they are strictly forbidden to introduce. In fact, their agency tells them not even to greet us (as other clients) which seems a bit over the top to me. Regardless, it’s privacy centered.

    It’s not a perfect world. I just make an effort to make warm eye contact if the other client seems remotely interested.

  9. @Ann: Yep. If I see a client outside of a work setting, I am not allowed to greet them unless they greet me first. I do try to give them warm eye contact though, so they don’t think I’m being rude/ignoring them.