Tag Archives: passing

I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog. See more BADD 2010 at Goldfish’s blog.)

I’m pretty open about my health issues. To be honest, I don’t know any other way to be. I know how to strategically hide my disabilities from strangers in passing interactions, but from the people with whom I interact on a daily basis? Given my appearance — tall, slim, young white girl, pretty enough, clean and conventionally dressed, perfectly middle-class — you’d think it would be easy to keep from communicating variant health, while in reality it is highly tasking. It takes energy to mask my medication-taking, body-resting, trigger-avoiding, activity-budgeting ways from the people around me, and I’m already running an energy deficit just to be around them in the first place.

So fuck it. I don’t hide it when I have to down a pill. If pain, fatigue, or cognitive issues are preventing me from doing something — a task requiring me to stand up or walk somewhere when my back pain is flaring up; speaking with anyone by telephone when my head is throbbing and my brain is not processing full sentences — I say so. I’ve stopped bothering to tuck in my TENS wires to make them completely invisible. When people ask me about the Penguins game last night, the response they hear begins with a mention of my 8:30 bedtime.

There are drawbacks to this. Sharing or not sharing information about one’s health is an extremely fraught decision; some people consider this information rude and gross (even when the actual content is totally innocuous), it can invite unwanted questions and speculation, and there are people who will use your undisguised behavior or the information you have volunteered against you in the future. It amounts to a choice between a life of concealment, which can quickly drain a person’s spirit and often aggravate their actual condition — and a life of vulnerability, never knowing what will be held against you, or by whom. Continue reading I can’t count on anybody to understand. (Blogging Against Disablism Day 2010)

Disability Is …?

(Originally posted July 2009 at Feministe, three rivers fog.)

We had a really good discussion about nondisability. It got derailed, a bit, because it depended on our ability to reasonably define disability. And it’s a subject that has come up in every discussion we’ve had these couple weeks. What is it?

I advocate an intentionally overbroad definition of disability. And I definitely see a tendency, with certain medical conditions, not to identify — on that inner level, what “feels right” — as disabled.

I support every person’s right to self-determination, to define their own experiences, and to identify however feels most right for them. I do not want to try to pressure people into identifying in a way they do not feel comfortable. But I do think that part of this tendency, this reticence, is rooted in a sort of ableism. Not ableism as in “internalized negative feelings about PWD” — but ableism as in “a certain understanding of how the world works and how society is/should be structured” … or, you might say, a certain model.

I want to explore a few things — explore our assumptions behind the word “disabled.”


Think, for a minute: visualize a disabled person. Just a generic idea of a disabled person. What would you say are the requirements to qualify as disabled?

Do you have to be disabled — in a dictionary definition sort of way? Disabled, unable, incapable? Unable to work, or unable to participate in social activities, or unable to take care of oneself? Is there a certain level of un-able-ness one must reach to qualify as disabled?

If so, what do you call the people who don’t reach that level — but who share many, if not all of the exact same problems with accessibility in society, who face the same obstacles in their path, the same ignorance and hostility? The people who have the same condition, but face different accessibility problems because they are trying to navigate the workplace, living independently — who are able to do these things — but who still have to fight with the outside world to be able to live their life how they want to?

Are these people disabled? No? Are they abled, then? Are they privileged over the people who meet that level of un-able-ness?

Am I “temporarily able-bodied” because I can push myself enough to work full-time?
Because I can walk? Drive? Prepare meals? Go to sports events and concerts?
What about the fact that I still have to fight with my doctors over medication? That I still have to approach HR at work to tell them about everything I need to be able to work there?
What about the fact that without the drugs I am taking and my TENS machine and my access to health care and workplace accommodations and accessible parking, all of a sudden I wouldn’t be able to do those things anymore?

Is my disability about my inner feelings when I get home and slouch in pain — is it about what is going on in my body? Because I still have pain, whether I am well-treated and working or untreated and housebound. I still have fatigue. I still struggle when I stand up from a sitting position, still need help getting out of the car if I haven’t taken at least a few painkillers already that day. All that stuff is still there.

Or is it that my disability something beyond me — not having to do with me at all? Not defined by what is going on inside my body, but defined by whether society is working with my body or working against it?


I’m going to let you in on a secret. A lot of us people who do fit the classic dictionary definition of “disabled”don’t feel “disabled” either. We don’t always feel un-able. We feel like “just people.” Normal people living a normal life, just happen to have some sort of neurological or physiological difference, but that isn’t our defining characteristic or something that is always forefront in our minds, it’s just one part of us that doesn’t always make that big a difference in our life at all.


Remember, briefly, the social and medical models of disability.

Under the medical model, a person must justify their claim to disability. A person must fit neatly into a narrow diagnosis with a Latin-based name. The person must be cleanly categorized. Their experiences must fit a prepared check list.

The medical model says that your body fails to be normal in this particular way: so we must devise a way to force it to be normal, and that will solve the problem.

Naturally, such an approach to disability will wind up excluding a good many people who don’t fit those boxes cleanly, who appear close to normal — and that just can’t be right; there must be a logical explanation, like that they are over-worrying, imagining things, that they like being sick and want the world to treat them with kid gloves. After all, there is no proof that they deviate from the normal — so they have failed to justify themselves as different.

The medical model, in this way, denies community and services to people who still face considerable obstacles to full participation in society because they have failed to prove that they deserve that “special treatment.” They have failed to prove themselves as disabled enough. They aren’t “other” enough to be Othered.

The medical model imposes strict and narrow definitions — which become boundaries which must be policed.

What do you do when you’re caught in the middle? Different, but not different enough to be Othered, but still needing services (benefits, accommodations) which are only given to Others.


Informed by the social model, “disability” becomes a marker not for condition (mental or physical) — not for “what I feel inside, what I experience inside” — but instead for the fact that our condition is maligned or neglected (or both) by the rest of society.

Disability is not a matter of my condition, but a matter of the group I am assigned because of that condition.

Perhaps it could be said as such: Disability is not a condition, it is a status.


The classic analogy to explain the social model is this:

Many sighted people have less-than-perfect sight. If assistive devices — glasses or contact lenses — were not so widely available and accessible, many of these people would be prevented from full participation in many aspects of society.

But because society sees fit to prioritize this assistance, to make sure glasses/contacts are widely available and accessible so that every less-than-perfect sighted person can have clearer vision — because society decided that no person should be blocked from access because of hir different vision — this condition is no longer a disability.

This is a useful thought experiment. But it is not a perfect analogy. Many blind people still face considerable access blocks. This only really applies to people who are sighted, but whose sight is not precisely “normal.” Perhaps because society can, for the most part, bring abnormally-sighted people to normal-sightedness, whereas it cannot do the same to blind folk.

There’s a lot to explore here.


The word disability isn’t perfect. I don’t know that I would choose it, were we to start over with a blank slate. Nor do I know that most people who are active in the disability community would choose it.

What I do know is this: people who don’t feel, literal-dictionary-definition disabled, embrace the word and run with it. They can make it something all their own.

Queer is a less-than-perfect word when you consider its literal definition, too. Yet the queer community has decided that they’re gonna take this thing and make it into what they want it to be. And they’re making something pretty damn awesome.

I don’t feel dis-abled. I feel people-are-willfully-ignorant and access-to-good-care-is-restricted-in-unnecessary-ways and the-medical-industry-has-no-respect-for-me. Among other things.

And I’m sure other disabled folk feel why-isn’t-there-a-wheelchair-ramp-for-this-public-use-building and nobody-has-to-accommodate-my-needs-until-they-get-sued-why-don’t-we-have-an-oversight-board-that-makes-them-do-it-right-from-the-fucking-start and you-aren’t-providing-alternatives-so-I-can-access-your-lecture-even-though-I-can’t-[hear-what-you-speak/see-what-you-write/be-there-in-person-at-all]. Among other things.

People who identify as disabled (or are identified as such by society) don’t necessarily always think the dictionary definition of the word applies to them. There are disabled people in wheelchairs or braces who still work, still have families, still go to parties. There are disabled people who appear totally abled yet can’t work, can’t perform certain self-care, and so on.

The word “disability,” in the disability movement right now, already refers to a great variety of individual conditions, abilities, approaches…

And for the most part, when a person appears whose condition challenges the current boundaries of abled/disabled, the disability community is completely ready to revise their assumptions and welcome that person (and hir companions) into the movement.

Because, here’s the thing…


The disability movement has a lot to offer to a lot of different people — not all of those people who may identify as disabled.

And this is part of why I do not want to pressure people to change their identification. They don’t have to identify as a disabled person, or a person with a disability, to still become a part of the disability movement, to benefit from it, to help move it forward.

What I am wanting to do is not change people’s minds about how they individually self-identify. What I want to do is explore the cultural phenomenon that is certain groups rejecting the label of disability.

Anyway: the disability movement is working hard to change the way we approach the world. From an approach that excludes non-normal people to an approach that stops INcluding by certain standards and starts just treating all persons as fundamentally human, period.

Under the current system, when a woman becomes pregnant and plans to keep the child, we expect the child to be free of disability. What’s that refrain from the supposedly-gender-enlightened? “I don’t care whether it’s a girl or a boy, as long as the baby comes out healthy!

When we encounter a person, we expect that person to be abled. When we imagine a “person” — just a generic, default person — we imagine that person as able-normative.

Currently, things go like this: 1. World expects “normal.” 2. Non-normal people come along. 3. Oops!

What disabled people want is more like this: 1. World is prepared for any number of different things. 2. We come along. 3. Hey, we were expecting you!

This approach is what defines the disability movement. We want to change the world so that the world stops treating us as unexpected — and therefore a disappointment — and therefore has not prepared for us — and therefore we have to constantly fight with the world to make it change every little individual thing it has set up wrong.

This approach, applied broadly, has benefits for so many more people than only the classically, dictionary-definition disabled.

This is the world I want to live in (bold emphasis added)…

My body isn’t the enemy, I realized.

It’s not my physical self that creates all my problems.

It’s all the external expectations of it.

Disability isn’t the result of individual defects, deviations from the able-bodied norm. Disability is the result of a society that fails to accommodate these differences.

What if we saw these differences as variation, not deviation? After all, we fully expect our children to be born with any number of different eye colors. Why is it any less when it comes to physical and mental abilities?

Can you shape a world in your mind where there is no norm? What does it look like? How does it differ from the world you live in today? What do you expect of people as a whole in order to support those currently disadvantaged?

The more I think, the more confused I become. It seems impossible to structure society so that everyone is brought to a similar level of ability across the board. But it does seem possible to structure society so that those fully-abled work to make up for those straightforwardly lacking, and everyone works with each other in full expectation of a wide range of ability across the populace, and all of this is seen not as hassling and burdensome, noble and heroic when someone takes it on—but as mundane, everyday, simply expected, no different from separating out your recyclables or driving on the right side of the road: something that everybody does, because it isn’t that hard to do, and it benefits yourself as well as those around you, so it’s stupid and even outright reprehensible not to.

That is the world I want to live in.

[Reading back, I cringe at the use of the words “straightforwardly lacking.” Proof that we are all still learning, still building.]

What if things did happen that way? What if we just rushed to give, knowing that those around us would rush to give back?

and in this POV, the centering of individualism falls apart — because that’s not what life is about. life is give and take, push and pull, you do this for me (that i don’t do well/don’t like to do, but that i want/need) and i’ll do this for you (that i do well/like to do, and you want/need).

disability, really, when you get down to it, is the ultimate unraveling of that ball of individualism — it FORCES you to look at all these little things that go into the living of a life, and realize that not all of them are yours to do or yours to control — and also to realize how many of those little things YOU affect for OTHER people’s lives — and to finally give up, and fall back into the arms of the community.

it means you have to stop looking at things as “mine, yours, this person’s, that person’s” etc. you have to stop keeping the damn tally — and just rush to give, knowing that those around you will rush to give back…

so many people are afraid to admit that ultimately, they DO depend on the people around them, and their accomplishments are not solely their own, and the things they do, affect people besides themselves. but it’s all true! and it’s not a bad thing, if you look at it the right way.

This is everything we are trying to change.

And when we are successful: it will be good for so many people. It will benefit a great many, people who might not consider themselves part of this movement, but who will see their life become substantially easier or better, because this movement has destroyed the system that puts obstacles in their path.


There is a lot people can learn from the disability movement — even if they don’t consider themselves a part of it.

This is why I, and others, explicitly tie our disability activism to our feminism. Believe it or not, there are things that non-disabled feminists can learn from disabled ones about how to refine, how to better our (not their, OUR) feminist movement.

There are things the disability movement is accomplishing that the feminist movement has fallen short on. Things that disability activists are paying attention to that feminists have forgotten.

And it makes a difference in women’s lives.


There are substantial immediate benefits to individuals, as well. Many of you who do not feel “disabled” nonetheless benefit directly from the Americans with Disabilities act and other non-discrimination legislation. And that’s only in the realm of the state (legal sense).

Consider the pharmaceutical industry. The alternative medicine industry. Consider protections on health insurance that prevent companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions or prevent them from denying certain treatments.

These are all things the disability movement has had part in. Often, the disability movement has been the sole force pushing for these things — when other movements fall short, and forget us.

And there is, therefore, substantial benefit to involving oneself in the disability movement. Because it is working for you. So it will do good for you and for us if you directly engage with it — help it refine its purpose — help direct its actions — help challenge preconceptions.

If you will stand with us, if you will be — a friend, or a family member — whatever role you feel comfortable taking, we will stand, sit, lean or lie beside you. We will be there with you, however you identify.

We want more people to engage with us — on an honest, good-faith level.

Some of those people will find themselves beginning to identify as a part of this movement, as a person with a disability. Some people will not, but will remain our friend, our ally.

No matter which: we are happy to have you.


ETA: I really should have included a link to this post from Joel at NTs Are Weird — from the perspective of the autistic community. I ain’t the only one beating this drum! I remember reading this post a long while back, and it has informed my politics a great deal. And I think it is necessary reading for anyone engaging with the disability movement. And he does a great job wrapping up the many elements of this post! 😉 Take it away (bold emphasis mine):

Welcome to the disability community! […]

Yes, that’s right, you’re DISABLED. Yep, you can pick that word apart and tell me why you aren’t, but, trust me, you are. And, no, I don’t mean that you are less or more functional than anyone else. I mean that you are part of a community defined by society’s institutions and programs, a community formed because of our minority status and the fact that society expects certain strengths and weaknesses, and anyone who doesn’t have that same pattern of strengths and weaknesses is going to have trouble in this society.

Yep, that’s the social model. It’s not the “OH MY GOD, I AM SO BROKEN AND LIFE SUCKS AND I WANT TO BE NORMAL BECAUSE EVERYTHING WOULD BE WONDERFUL AND I WOULD HAVE LOTS OF MONEY AND A GIRLFRIEND AND A NICE CAR” view of disability. But it is recognition that we have trouble in society as it is currently set up. You’ll also notice that it is not a view that accepts society as a static, unchangeable, and morally good entity, but rather as an institution that can and should change – even when people have a hard time seeing how it could.

In addition to this, I want you to know that there is “nothing new under the sun.” You don’t need to reinvent disability theory […]

One example – although the victory isn’t yet fully realized – find out why there public transit has to at least make *some* effort at accommodation in the US. Yep, I know it still sucks, and there are tons of problems – I’m not saying anything different. But I can assure you of this: Without good advocacy, there wouldn’t be a wheelchair lift on any bus except one owned by a nursing home – and even that one might not have one.

Find out why people with cerebral palsy can go to US schools today, even if their natural speech is hard to understand, thanks to assistive technology and good law. Sure, schools, technology, and law aren’t good enough yet, but they are way better than they were 40 years ago. Why?

Better yet, learn how you can make a bus in your city more accessible both to yourself and to someone with a different kind of disability. Learn about your schools and what can be done to help others with disability. Not just autistic people, but people with all types of disabilities. Do you know what you will find if you do this? You’ll find out quickly that it also helps you, even if that wasn’t the goal of the movement.

For those of you who are already doing these things – thanks! It’s good for us to stop reinventing the wheel once in a while.

Yes, it DOES make a difference

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

I wrote this yesterday in an extreme fog and do not have the spoons to rework and polish it. Apologies for the brainspill, but these days it’s the only option I have.


For background, see Ouyang Dan’s post on the problematic aspects of the TV show House. Don’t tell me that people realize this is fictional. Don’t tell me that people know how to maintain that separation. Some do. Many don’t. And they’re everywhere. At the bottom of the totem pole… and in positions of power over the very people they are prejudiced against.


I was called back to work two weeks ago. I work at a government office that provides certain assistance programs. (Once you go to work for one government agency, you realize there are a whole lot more of them than you ever thought before.) I really don’t want to go into it any more specifically than that.

It’s been very rough on me. Last winter, work was physically draining. I basically have two whole hours every day that I am awake and not at work, preparing for work, or traveling to and from work, and semi-conscious. Not only am I so physically exhausted that I go to bed three hours after work ends, I am so physically exhausted that my brain just cannot be pushed any further. I have trouble comprehending the blogs and news sites I normally read; writing is usually out of the question. Of course, we won’t even talk about anything more physical than that — even preparing a boxed dinner for myself is too difficult. My apartment is even more a mess than usual, because I don’t have the energy to pick up the clothes that I shed as soon as I get the front door shut, the mail and personal items that trail after me from the couch to the bedroom…

Unfortunately, so far this year, it hasn’t just been physically draining. I’ve been dealing with a sudden onset of severe migraines, and not the type of migraines I’ve had since childhood and have an intimate knowledge of — these are more classic migraines, the nausea, the aura and vision distortion, the intense pain and pressure behind the eyes… The pain is not as overwhelming as my normal migraines (where a twitch of the toe makes me want to scream or cry or at least moan, but the movement and force of emitting any noise at all would hurt even worse, so I just curl up and remain frozen in misery), but the experience is just as miserable because it block’s my brain’s ability to function, even to process the smallest of information. I’ve been having trouble writing six-digit numbers on the top of each application. And normally I work faster than the worker next to me, but the past two weeks she’s been cranking out work three times faster than me.

It’s frustrating. I’ve been doing everything in my capacity to do to fight these headaches off. Everything. And no, I don’t want any helpful suggestions. But regardless, even with all the desperate measures I have been taking, they persist.

On top of it all, my endometriosis has decided to flare up at the same time. So I get double nausea, extreme abdominal cramps, persistent pelvic pain and other symptoms.

I’ve been in a lot of pain.

I take a lot of medications. For pain. I take medications that have no effect on people who do not have a specific type of pain disorder. And I take medications that people who are not in pain popularly take to get high. (I do not, for the record, take anything to get high myself.) And I put up with a lot of shit to continue taking one of few medications that works and that enables me to work.

(I guess I could give it up and therefore be putting up with less shit. But then I’d, you know, not be able to work. And for so long as I have the option to be able to work, I’m taking it. Because I may not even have that option forever. Situations change, bodies change, and bodies change how they react to medications over time. I’m doing what is necessary for myself and my family at this point in our lives.)

So, at work today.

I sit on the far side of the first floor of our building, along with all the other people working in my particular program, the people working on another program, and a couple stray general clerks across from all of us. The other program’s supervisor and one of the other program’s workers (OPS/OPW hereafter) were talking about a certain case, a woman who was being denied medication and needed help obtaining it. This was before lunch, it was a general talk in a work context, that is how to get the problem solved.

My husband and I went home for lunch, as we do regularly, given that we live less than five minutes from our workplace. It takes half the lunch period but it is worth the spoons because it makes the workday so much more bearable — two four-hour chunks rather than one long nine-hour one. We sit around, watch The People’s Court reruns, eat our lunch and laugh at the cats who get in silly, hyper, meddling moods around that time.

I returned from lunch, feeling a lot better having had a break from the fluorescent lighting and ambient noise of the HVAC system. And a few minutes after I got back, sitting next to the OPS scanning documents into the computer system, OPW wandered back over and began talking again about the client from before.

The medication? Oxycontin. Her doctor has been prescribing it to her for over 15 years.

And the conversation? Went like this. (As typed soon after in an email to my husband, as close as I could get to what they actually said, given how stunned and hurt I was while it was happening.)

OPW: do you watch house?
OPS: no not really
OPW: well he has some sort of leg injury, but he takes that other one, what is it? vicodin
OPS: uh huh
OPW: and they sent him to rehab, and he just had to find something to occupy his mind so he wouldn’t think about it
OPS: yeah they get addicted so easy
OPW: and now they put him on regular pain killers and he’s doing just fine
OPS: yeah a lot of the time tylenol or advil works just as well, people just want the high
OPW: exactly, and their doctors prescribe it to them and they hand it out to family members…

And the conversation went on like this for a couple minutes, with the two of them walking back and forth fetching printed documents, attending to the scanning etc.

I just… I’m not terribly private about my condition. I don’t bring it up, but if it’s relevant I talk about it. I do try to avoid telling my coworkers that I take narcotic medications (as opposed to just “medications”) but I have gone over it specifically with HR as it can be a security issue in some agencies.

I was sitting right there. OPW sits on the other side of me, and had to walk around me to get to where OPS was at the scanner. I was sitting right there.

They were talking about me.

They weren’t thinking of me, of course. They’d never make that connection. I’m young and thin and pretty enough. They know I work hard. Most of my office loves the hell out of me.

But if I had spoken up — rather than sitting there holding my breath trying not to cry — how would that opinion change? Would they start seeing me as lazy, as slacking off? Would they whisper about me every time I went to the water fountain for a drink? What was I taking? What was I doing with it? Would they start taking certain behaviors as symptomatic of addiction? If I passed too well one day, appearing to be just fine (to them; I am good at covering up my pain) — would they take that as evidence that I couldn’t actually be in pain and couldn’t really need that medication? And if I didn’t pass well one day — especially these days, when I’ve been stopped more than one time as someone remarks on how deathly pale I am and asks if I’m OK and tells me to take a break — would they see that resulting, not from my pain, but from the supposed addiction?

They were talking about me. They didn’t even know it. But I am that person on that medication. Pushing through the pain to keep working.

The difference is, Dr. House is a character.

I’m real.

And that woman. These were the attitudes of the people who were helping her resolve an issue. As much as I wish otherwise, workers do have some degree of latitude in deciding how they are going to approach a case, and can apply the law in different ways for different people, even if it appears pretty strict on paper.

I am that woman.

I have been there. I am there. I have to deal with unsympathetic figures in obtaining my treatment. Doctors, nurses, office staff, pharmacists, insurance reps, welfare reps, other reps. I have issues I have to call to have resolved. I have that person on the other line who’s promising me on the one hand to resolve the issue — but on the other hand …? How can I ever know?

I don’t know what was going on in this woman’s life. I don’t know if she’s dependent (there is a difference). I don’t know if she would be better off on another course of therapy. Or whether she’s tried all those other courses and they’ve given her awful side effects or they’re contraindicated given her particular condition or they’re unavailable to her due to income or access. I don’t know.

Maybe she’s abusing. Maybe she’s handing it out on the street corner.

Maybe she’s just like me. Just one person trying to power through this world as best she can. And this is the best way she’s found to do it.

“What can I do?”

Access is an all-consuming endeavor in a disabled person’s life. I love that the disability community learned to frame it that way: it emphasizes that the problem is not the person, their body or their condition; the problem is society’s indifference.

Many accessibility solutions are structural; they require collective action — constructing spaces such that wheelchairs can be used within them; hiring interpreters and providing caption services… these are not actions that can be undertaken by a single person.

What is unfortunate about this, though, is that it relieves the fully-abled individual of hir responsibility to hir disabled counterparts. It means the fully-abled individual can safely get away with never thinking about disability, and the connection between societal access and hir actions specifically, at all. Sie never has to consider how her attitudes and behaviors very really shape the environment of hir peers. Sie never has to stop and think, how does what I am doing affect those around me, and how can I change that to make things better for them?

When all solutions are collective, your own actions become invisible. Your contribution to the world around you becomes invisible. The power you hold over other people becomes invisible. Your status as part of the problem becomes invisible.

So let’s be clear — YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. And there is no instant solution, no magic words that can make that “go away.”

But what can you do?

I thought of what I think is an illustrative example the other day.

When I was attending college, I had a lot of walking to do — at least a mile from my dorm to each class, and of course the walking in between. It was exhausting, and it was one of the major factors that led me to drop out the first time.

One of my classes was on the sixth floor of the humanities building. Another was on the fifth floor of the math and science building. And I had several choices on how to reach those points:

1. The elevator.

2. The escalator (in the math building).

3. The stairs.

Here’s the irony: the only accessible solution was the stairs.

I have a physical disability. That disability is also invisible. I can climb stairs, but when I do it precludes any remotely physical activity (up to and including sitting upright) for a couple days, compounded the more flights I have to climb.

This was not teneble, not when I had to do this three times a week, and that doesn’t even include the energy required to walk to the building in the first place, to sit in the hard uncomfortable chair for an hour taking notes, and the energy I needed to do the home assignments, projects, and studying necessary for the class. And that doesn’t account for my four other classes!

So: Why couldn’t I use the elevator?

Well, because everyone else was using the elevator — so many people that there was a long line and usually a 15-20 minute wait before you could step foot in one.

Again, I have an invisible disability. I could have pushed to the front of the crowd every day, jostling my way through dozens of people to weasel my way in the door. And that would have made me kind of an asshole, you know?

So what do I say? “EXCUSE ME, I’M DISABLED, I NEED TO GET IN.” And everybody would turn to look at my lanky eighteen year old body, with no visible deformities, no mobility aids or other assistive devices or personal aide or caretakers, having walked in the front door just fine. And then everybody would be thinking that I was kind of really an asshole.

Complicating things is that at the time, my severe anxiety was undiagnosed and untreated. There was no way I could have even squeaked out a humble “excuse me,” much less forced my way through the crowd, much less shouted for all to hear that they needed to get out of my way and give me “special treatment.” Oooh, how I loathed special treatment. It made me feel like I was, you know. Disabled. Not normal.


This crowd existed in front of every elevator in every building on campus. Not all of the people waiting at that elevator were healthy enough to take the stairs. There were surely others with invisible illnesses like me, and others yet who just weren’t in the greatest shape, and so on. But the majority of those folks took the elevator because it was there. And those folks are the ones who made my life, and my participation in society, that much harder back then.

So: Why couldn’t I use the escalator?

Here’s a different problem. A lot of kids used the escalator. An escalator, as you know, is basically a revolving set of stairs that moves upward, so that you don’t have to do any climbing to get up to the next floor.

But here’s the problem. Everyone who took the escalator? Walked up it.


Now, if I wasn’t going to be climbing the stairs, why the hell would I go and climb the escalator? The entire point is to spare me that climb, right?

But I couldn’t use it that way. If I stood still on a single step, that would clog up the line of kids studiously climbing, climbing. They were narrow enough for two small people to stand side by side, but then not everyone is small, and we also had to carry our bulky book bags and such with us. So if one person stays still, there is a bottleneck effect — only a trickle of people can squeeze through, and everyone else gets stuck behind you standing still.

Assuming everyone in that crowd is healthy, someone who stands like that and creates that kind of jam is, again, kind of an asshole — right? So what was I supposed to say? “I’m disabled, sorry.” While everyone stares at the back of my entirely healthy-looking body for the next few minutes.


So: what was I left with? Well. The stairs were pretty free. Maybe I could have started to carry a cane, just to visually signal to people that I was sick. Even though I didn’t need that cane and wouldn’t know what to do with it. Do I hunch myself over, tousle my hair and do my best to act like I’m ninety years old and barely hanging on? Just so people would maybe, just maybe, believe me?

Or maybe… maybe everyone else involved could have stopped and thought about how their actions were affecting other people. Because I sure as hell wasn’t the only one facing this dilemma.

Just because the elevators and escalators existed did not mean they were therefore accessible to the people who needed them. Because accessibility is more than structural. It also counts on the actions of each individual.

Yes, you are part of the problem. There are times where you are in the way, where your actions are creating difficulties in someone else’s life. And you probably can’t even see it. But, you know — maybe you would — if you started looking.

Pain and Public Spaces

The singer Martha Wainwright has a song entitled “Bleeding All Over You” that begins with the following set of lyrics:

There are days
when the cage doesn’t
seem to open very wide at all

I know it sounds negative, but some days, I can definitely relate. Maybe it’s the fact that I pass fairly regularly as able-bodied–at least in public spaces–or maybe it’s my failure at passing on my worst days that makes me relate. As much as I hate to rely upon the old trope of the person-with-disability as trapped by her own unruly body, it, like many tropes, has a sliver of truth to it.

When I am in public, I often fear that other people–more able-bodied people–can “spot” my disability. On a purely surface level, this makes no sense. Part of what makes passing such an interesting topic is the fact that, on some level, the individual who passes can hide something and look as if she or he is a part of another group, despite some (invisible) evidence that would suggest otherwise. I realize also that not everyone has the ability to pass–that passing, in itself, is a privilege. The ability to appear to be something that one is not (often as a member of a more privileged group) is not something that absolutely everyone has.

Today, I sat in a restaurant and ate a light lunch very, very slowly because my right hand was unable to hold the fork without considerable muscle pain in my tendons and wrist. This sort of thing happens rarely, but when it does, I get nervous. I become nervous because I think that my fellow diners, or students, or whomever, can pick up on my not-immediately-obvious physical difference(s) from something that is only slightly “off.” Even using a term like “off” is problematic; it implies that there is something wrong, that the person who needs to take time to do some of the things that others may take for granted needs to be fixed, somehow; that, or she needs to “fix” herself (by minimizing/masking her pain or ability or dis-ability) so that she may fit in and continue to pass.

So, are my restrained grimaces due to pain–when I am in public spaces, that is– restrained because I, deep down, want to continue passing? Is it because I would be embarrassed to show my pain around strangers? Is it out of rather ridiculous consideration(s) of the “comfort” level of strangers (ie: the social assumption that one should never make people uncomfortable, even if one is in pain)? Does a “stiff upper lip,” so to speak, actually do anyone a favor? I’d argue that the whole “keep your pain to yourself” thing might arise from a very deep fear of individuals with disabilities, but that’s probably best saved for another post.

Originally posted at Ham.Blog

Who hates to hear they look great?

(Originally posted July 2007 at three rivers fog)

Over half of the chronically ill*:

In a recent survey of 611 chronically ill individuals, done by the National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week committee, 53.27% of the respondents said that the most frustrating or annoying comment people make about their illness is “But you look so good!”

“Although telling someone they look good is often seen as a compliment,” says Lisa Copen, founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week “it feels like an invalidation of the physical pain or seriousness of one’s illness and the suffering they cope with daily.”


This is a sore spot for many with “invisible” conditions: that is, disabilities or impairments that aren’t visible to the eye, that don’t cause outward physical deformities or leave other telltale signs. The icon of the disabled in our society is a stick figure in a wheelchair; many healthy folks don’t realize that a good many of the people milling around them, though appearing outwardly healthy, can be suffering a chronic illness that leaves them impaired or outright disabled.

These illnesses can range from diabetes to chronic fatigue syndrome to cancer to eating disorders.

And because they are invisible, they can be harder to understand. People can’t see what’s wrong with you, so they assume there isn’t anything wrong (and we’re back to that white male able-bodied heterosexual default “person” again). Even presented with evidence, many people still insist that there can’t be anything really wrong. As people who have battled depression surely find familiar, you’re expected to just get out and get some sun, go out with friends, or otherwise push through. Most of us, after all, have experienced periods of sadness, pain or fatigue, or times when we were excessively hard on ourselves over our physical appearance—and healthy people will be able to recover from these things and move on. They have little concept of living with these things every minute of every day for the rest of your life.

And of course, no one can be expected to fully understand. But there are certainly conversational landmines that even the most well-meaning and sympathetic person can inadvertently step on. “You look great!” is one of them. Naturally, everyone loves a compliment (although many, especially women, are trained to feel a need to debate or deny those comments so as not to seem unduly self-confident). But when these compliments are offered as a refutation to a person’s complaints that they are feeling down or tired or overwhelmed, it leaves a person feeling (recall that teenage angst) that they aren’t really understood.

I’ll grant that I don’t tend to mind these comments as much; they blow over me a bit more easily. But a couple more comments that the committee picked out tend to dig under my skin:

* “If you stopped thinking about it and went back to work…” (12.42%)


I’ve been told to “think positive” my way out of the pain countless times. I have news for these people. I thought-positived my way through my entire first nineteen years of life. Despite living with a pain processing disorder that can make carrying in a few grocery bags feel like running a marathon, I pushed my way through school on nothing but Tylenol. And then I very nearly failed out of high school because I overworked myself. I was out of school for so long that the attendance office started calling and leaving threatening messages that I needed to come back or… I would go back to school for half a day and then take off my three-days-without-a-doctor’s-note just recovering from those three and a half hours sitting in a chair, not even enough mental energy left to learn: just enough to be present.

I then pushed myself through college, thinking that if I could just keep at it I could be “normal.” After six weeks I had to drop all my classes; I was stuck in bed in too much pain to so much as microwave myself a Hot Pocket for lunch; I lived on a big pan of bread bedside until I was able to go back home. I was bedridden and then housebound for three months thereafter.

I learned to pace myself after that; I dropped down to twelve units when I was able to return to college, and then mid-semester had to drop half those just to be able to finish half my work in the remaining half. (One prof cut me slack and gave me an A based on the work that I did, the other didn’t and gave me a C- because though I did good work, I didn’t do enough work to earn the grade. I still can’t decide which approach affords me more dignity.) Then I dropped down to six units the next semester and wasn’t able to finish it out. The pain catches up to me.

Then, a year later, I started working. Ten hours a week. And after six months I had to quit. It was killing me. I couldn’t walk when I woke in the morning; it felt like daggers shooting through the floor into my feet with the slightest of weight. I was feeling the migraines coming back, and my painkiller use was shooting upward at a rate I was decidedly not comfortable with. And my bosses were jerks to boot (“I’m fifty years old, honey, I hurt too.” “…!!!! [splutter]”).

No. I can’t be normal. Even if I look like any other perfectly healthy twenty-one-year-old (albeit with somewhat darker circles under her somewhat baggier eyes). I have to pace myself. I can’t take any more than two showers a week (and showers-per-week is a good gauge of my health at the time; when it drops below one, I know I’m in trouble). I can’t get out of the house too much (the effort trying to make myself look half-presentable, even after I ditched the somewhat exacting patriarchy standards, is too much, and then I’m out of my comfort zone where I can sit, stand, lie how I need, when I need and where I need, have my medicine and a drink at hand and heating pads and pillows ever-ready). I can’t take on too many out-of-house commitments, if any, and it has to be a pretty flexible definition of “commitment” to boot. My husband works full time and I not at all, and he still does half the housework. I’ve learned to ask for help when I’m struggling instead of stubbornly insisting I can do it myself. Etc. I’ve had to accept all these things. It’s a heavy hit to your pride, trust me.

Which reminds me of the last one that bugs the shit out of me:

3. You’re so lucky to get to stay in bed all day.

Oh, honey. I’d give anything to trade you…

*(A side note: I find it frustrating that a good chunk of stories I receive on fibromyalgia are press releases, seeking to advertise a new “alternative” treatment or, in some other way, make money off those suffering. A good chunk of the rest is business stories talking about how a condition impacts corporate profits. The remainder are slice-of-life stories that often get the facts pathetically wrong. I’d say perhaps one out of every thirty or forty stories that come my way seem to approach the condition in a respectful and accurate tone. This, despite being a press release, was one of them.)

Stop and think: invisible access for invisible disabilities

[This post was originally posted at Hoyden About Town on May 4, 2007.]

This is my first personal post about being sick. A “coming-out”, to some of my online friends. And a whole lot of elaboration, for those who know I’m sick, but don’t know the details. It’s taken me ages to write, and I haven’t re-drafted it: here are my musings, in the raw.

Becoming Sick

I have moderately severe chronic fatigue syndrome, or something that looks very much like it. I first got sick two and a half years ago, quite suddenly. After a few months of feeling just a bit off, not bouncing back with my self-prescribed generic good-food-and-fun-and-exercise cure for tiredness, I suddenly crashed. Over the course of about two weeks, I crashed hard. I became unable to work, and daily living was full of what suddenly seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. I dropped things, felt off balance, walked into things, had large-muscle twitches, thermoregulation problems, I was suddenly blanketed in pain. My short-term memory came and went and I couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at once, a huge change in cognitive function for me. Most noticeably, activity didn’t pick me up like it always had in the past. Before, if I felt a little off I could go for a bike ride or a swim or a choir rehearsal or a night out dancing, and feel invigorated by it. After, I’d walk a couple of blocks then flump down absolutely exhausted. This was the first time I’d ever felt like this, and it didn’t make any sense! Continue reading Stop and think: invisible access for invisible disabilities