Recently, I was on the commuter train home. I happened to be reading Susan Schweik’s book Ugly Laws: Disability in Public for a research paper. Two middle-aged women sat down opposite me, and one inquired as to what book I was reading.
Me: It’s a book about 20th-century ugly laws in the U.S.
Woman #1: What’re those?
Me: Oh, they were regulations that prevented people with visible disabilities from panhandling in public, but more generally, they also kept people with disabilities out of the public eye.
Woman #2: Wow, that is so interesting! Are you in school?
Me: Yes, I’m reading this for a grad school paper.
Woman #1: You’re lucky you’re in grad school! The great thing about being in school is that you get to learn about things you might otherwise never learn about.
Me: Yeah, I suppose so.
Woman #1: And…why are you interested in that topic?
Me: I’m interested in feminist theory and disability, and how those things intersect with race, gender and class, and other stuff. That’s the short version, anyway.
Woman #1 [After a long pause]: Of course, I didn’t mean to imply that you are disabled or have a deformity…
Me: Uh, okay. [Pause] You can’t see it, but I do have chronic pain.
And the conversation sort of stopped after that. For some reason, I suspect that this is not an uncommon occurrence.