What “Passing” Means to a Disabled Person

24 Oct

My busy season has yielded some great ideas. More than ever, I’m actively revising and tweaking my presentations before each college visit. These changes come out of things like Q&A sessions, special advance requests, ad libs while I’m speaking … or discussing outside “the office,” or just new ideas that I’m developing.

One of the changes this month has been adding line item on my “Outstanding Symptoms” slide (from Program 2, my extended faculty training, and the custom program I did today), which I have a blog about, too: 7 Symptoms of Our Chronic Illnesses that Doctors Forget to Mention

I’ve added a line. I’ve added an 8th outstanding symptom, and that line item is…

The Stress of “Passing”

Passing is a concept used with race, the LGBTQ+ community, and any person trying to identify with a group other than their own. It’s typically done under negative social pressure to “pass” as a more homogeneous, mainstream, and popularly accepted identity in order to make people around them more “comfortable.” It’s draining, and it’s tragically inauthentic.

Disabled people try to pass as able-bodied. People with hidden disabilities can often entirely pass, but it’s not easy. We tap into physical energy and emotional resources that are already in short supply at the expense of the rest of our day, or the rest of our week. I can pass as able-bodied and go out with my friends, but the next day I’m not going to be able to work nearly as much as I would had I stayed home the evening before.

Even people with visible disabilities try to pass. During my recent back injury, I tried to walk with a more normal gait, even though it increased my pain. I have a friend who built his wheelchair so he sits as high as possible, to be closer to the height of people who are standing. We will go out of our ways to be prepared for upcoming events, even if it means using up a day to visit a place ahead of time so we’re more comfortable and less disabled when we’re there with our friends or family.

A couple days ago, I had a few short minutes between a meeting and a presentation and tried to get comfortable during alone time in my car. I was exhausted and in pain. I forced a smile for a selfie with Amica snoozing. The stinker woke up and moved just before I snapped the shot.

So many of us smile through our discomfort, pain, fatigue, nervousness … just to make it easier on those around us.

I will pretend to not be interested in ideas or events when the truth is I’d love to go but I worry I might not be able to handle sitting or standing or the loud noise. I just don’t want to say that out loud. It ruins the illusion.

As the awareness advocate that I am, I realize I need to suck it up and stop making fake excuses. I need to stop passing and be my authentic disabled self.

[By the way, if you’ve noticed me using the word “disabled” instead of person-first language (“person with disabilities”), it’s because many of us are taking the word disabled back. It’s because person-first language does more to help able-bodied people feel more comfortable than it does to make us more comfortable. What it’s actually doing is reinforcing the pressure on us to minimize or even hide our disabilities. To pass.]

So yes, I’m doing the work to be more authentic. It’s a process. For now, I can at least make you aware. I can spotlight that you might be trying to pass, too. We can let others know that passing is something disabled people try to do.

What can you do, beyond mere awareness, to help? That’s as simple as saying genuinely, “You never have to pretend around me.”

You never have to pretend around me.

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