They Don't Look Disabled
Have you ever looked at someone sitting in their car with accessible license plates and thought to yourself, that person doesn’t look disabled? They look young and vibrant, so why are they abusing the system? Or does someone at work get to sit on a stool while others have to stand the whole time? Why does the couple at the restaurant think they’re so important that they can’t leave their dog at home for two hours? These thoughts may not resound in your mind, but I’ve heard these sentiments from many people throughout my life. Many times from people with disabilities themselves.
It’s human nature to judge other people, either subconsciously or not. It was a way to survive at some point, knowing who to trust and who to beware. I’m not here to claim what relevance that trait carries into today’s society. In some situations it’s beneficial, but in others it’s unnecessary.
Judging a Book By Its Cover
We learned not judge a book by it's cover when we were young and is the very philosophy I was alluding to earlier. There is a reason why we shouldn’t judge people on appearance. We all have biases and preconceived notions. These help us speed up the processing of everyday situations into terms we can digest faster. We carry pre-programmed biases that we learned at certain points before we could understand the depth of their meaning. Some disabilities are more obvious than others, but some disabilities are completely invisible. When we categorize the idea of disability with a very narrow and specific notion of what disability looks like, we do a disservice to everyone.
The most popular concept of disability is a person in a wheelchair, and is probably why that is represented as the International Symbol of Accessibility. Although a person being in a wheelchair is one of the most recognized forms of disability, it is far from the only way a disability can manifest. People sometimes fail to consider life outside of their own perspective. Empathy is the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes without having similar experiences to base that perspective on. Empathy is a “muscle” that everyone can always strengthen.
Invisible disability can take on many forms. People who are Deaf generally do not look out of the ordinary at first glance but have a completely different perspective on life, way of communicating, and what it means to participate in society. Sometimes it is apparent that a person might be blind or have low vision, but sometimes you would never have guessed they have a visual disability until you get to know them. Many people with low vision can do day-to-day tasks without a cane and may use adaptive technology that people around them are unaware they’re using. Sometimes people with low vision prefer to not appear to have a disability at all, avoiding the potential of appearing vulnerable to people who would take advantage of their disability.
Disability can be mental or emotional health problems that a person is very good at concealing. Heart and respiratory conditions are generally not immediately recognizable, either. I myself belong to a category of people with disabilities which have a neurological impairment - Erb’s Palsy. I have all my body parts, but the disability is not obvious until you watch how I move and do things with both arms and hands. For other people with other conditions, you may only notice their neurological dysfunction when they begin to walk. This is by no means an exhaustive list of possibilities.
Letting a Bad Apple Spoil the Bunch
I realize that for as long as there are people, there will be people who are dishonest and take advantage of situations to benefit themselves. There are people who will use their family member’s parking placard to park in accessible parking without the family member present. There are people who will lie about their pet being a service animal to bring it places. These people are like the “vocal minority” that skew broad perceptions.
It’s important to not throw everyone under the bus who doesn’t fit a preconceived notion of what disability looks like. Sometimes you don’t know the circumstances and that’s OK. I don’t have the answers for how to keep people honest. I do know that judging the innocent because of the dishonest is not the way to go about these issues. It’s not our right to question or determine another person’s disability.
If we represent a Title II or III entity, sometimes we may ask certain questions about disability when it’s not obvious, but even that requires nuance, education, and tact. I don’t want to answer questions everywhere I go about the legitimacy of a condition I’ve had to contend with all my life.
From my own perspective as a person with an invisible disability, I have to deal with my disability every day and it's no one else’s burden but my own. It’s always been my responsibility to figure out how to get things done, in the way I am able. It has taken me time to admit I’m only human and figure what I should not be doing, like over-compensating on my good side and destroying my body in the process. On top of navigating life with my disability, I’m a normal person. I have the same life stresses as anyone else. I don’t want to explain my life story to a stranger for not doing something I consider detrimental to my health. I’ve experienced tension from some people in the past for making good-for-me decisions based on my disability.
Everyone, people with and without disabilities, are going through a heck of a lot in life, some more than others. If we're bothered seeing someone who doesn’t “look disabled” benefiting from something to do with access, it does no harm to relax and give them the benefit of the doubt. I know it can be frustrating if an accessible parking lot is full and we may suspect the people ahead of us “aren’t really disabled,” but the truth is we don’t know what’s going on.