As a disabled woman of color, I can think of few things that rattle my cage more than microaggressions. These negative, condescending statements are often subtle, and there's a whole host of microaggressions people with disabilities experience in particular all the time. When we talk about "diversity" and "intersectionality," what usually comes to mind are race, gender, religion, and sexuality — all of which are significantly important issues in the world of identity politics. That being said, the disability community is often an afterthought. Too often do we forget that people with disabilities, too, have to deal with microaggressions on the regular. They can take place in everyday conversations, making them hard to call out unless you want to be looked down upon for making a big deal out of "nothing."
Most people don't mean to be insulting, and a lot of people have good intentions. But even well-meaning family and friends may end up using microaggressions, not realizing that what they're saying is highly offensive to their loved ones. Furthermore, although this may come as a shock to some, people who are disabled can also come across as being ableist toward someone with a different disability, just like people of different races can still say racist things. Also keep in mind that some people who have disabilities aren't bothered by certain types of microaggressions, so whether or not someone considers a specific statement or question offensive can be a highly personal matter.
The following list is by no means comprehensive. It only covers just a few of the everyday microaggressions that many people with disabilities (PWD) deal with all the time — in the workplace, at school, and beyond:
1. Reducing The Disability To An Unfortunate Fact
A few months ago, I was touring the headquarters of a global news publication with several other then-student journalists when a senior reporter came out of his office to chat with us. I happened to be standing the nearest to him — and in the middle of addressing all of us, he suddenly saw me wearing my pretty visible tracheostomy (trach) tube and said, "What happened to you?" Cue the awkwardness.
Saying things like "Wow, I'd hate to be you" or "I could never deal with that" is a common microaggression. But many of us don't consider our disabilities to be some embarrassing fluke or the curse of our lives. They're not.
2. Deciding For Others How "Bad" Their Disability Is (Or Isn't)
People often say to me, "Oh, you look so normal." It's true that I can walk, talk, eat, laugh, and shout at the top of my lungs. But what a lot of people don't get is that my trach tube is the only reason why I'm able to breathe. I can't swim or run for more than 15 seconds without having a wheezing attack. Nor is loss of mobility the only characteristic of disability; there are also invisible disabilities like epilepsy and mental illnesses. Other people don't get to decide for us what "counts" as being disabled.
3. Disability Discrimination
Once, during a job interview, I was speaking about my qualifications when the interviewer suddenly asked me about the NYC weather. I thought, This is strange. He started asking me questions about whether the cold winters make me more likely to get sick. What does that have to do with the job? Literally nothing.
4. Assuming That Disability Always Means Inability
Whether it's getting laid, shooting hoops, or eating food, it's a mistake to assume that we can't do something just because we're disabled. Yes, most people with disabilities still have sexual desires and healthy sex lives. Someone with a prosthesis can still participate in sports. And people who don't have fingers can still feed themselves.
This can range from talking to others around the PWD versus addressing them directly to mimicking that person's disability. I've actually had someone go so far as to use a "baby" voice with me. After she asked about my trach tube and I told her what it was, her tone shifted immediately — like her perception of my maturity and intelligence changed, too.
7. Condescending Responses
One of my friends who has a prosthetic leg says her biggest pet peeve is when people clap for her when, for instance, she hops to the other side of the road or across the beach. People will howl, "Great job!" or "Come on, you can do the thing!" But it's not any of their business what she's doing, and applauding someone for completing an everyday activity is just about as far from encouraging as you can get.
8. Inspiration Porn
This is often the media's fault. The difference between inspiration porn and an article about actually inspiring people is that the former is written to make able-bodied people feel good about themselves. For instance, a news segment about how someone is a "hero" for helping a disabled person, while neglecting to include any quotes from the actual PWD is usually inspiration porn.
9. Turning Disabilities Into Minor, Everyday Defects Or Using Them As A Punchline
We've talked so much about how harmful ableist language can be, and yet somehow people still keep doing it. We have to deal with classmates, professors and the barista across the street saying seemingly mundane things like, "I'm really OCD about my files," or "Ugh, I can't read. I'm totally dyslexic today." We're expected to chuckle. Newsflash: Being dyslexic isn't a one-day thing.
10. Assuming The Disability Is A Negative Trait
If someone told me that I "suffer" from wearing a tracheostomy tube, I would be so confused and maybe even laugh. I've worn a trach tube for 24 years, so it's all that I've ever known. A better phrase would be, "She has a trach tube" or "She has vocal cord paralysis." For many people, though not all, a disability is a big part of our identity even though it's not the only thing that defines who we are. Sure, there are a ton of limitations that come with my disability, but that doesn't mean I resent the experience or feel embarrassed by what I look like. Only society's expectations make us feel embarrassed by things we shouldn't be.
11. Projecting An "Us" Versus "Them" Mentality
Disability lies on a spectrum. Furthermore, every identity is different, and what makes disability unique as an identity is that anyone can become disabled at any point in time in their lives. So using harmful language like "you people in the wheelchairs" further alienates the disability community and also reinforces the idea that an able-bodied person will never — or even could never — become disabled. And that's simply not true.
12. Tiptoeing Around The Word "Disability"
I know some people may think they're being extra polite, but no, we don't have "special needs." Our identity doesn't need to be sugarcoated just because it makes some people uncomfortable. Let's start using the specific word for whatever disability someone has. I have a tracheostomy tube. She has muscular dystrophy. Muscular what, you say? Muscular dystrophy.
13. Using Blanket Statements
Lumping people with disabilities into one category is one of the worst microaggressions. Old people aren't the only ones who can have a disability, so "but you're so young!" doesn't fly. You wouldn't say, "All white people love burgers," so why would you say, "All disabled people are dependent"?
Images: Wendy Lu/Bustle; Giphy (13)