A reader asked:
I’m physically disabled, and it seems like it usually takes abled people i become friends with a LONG time to “show their true colors” about it. I’ve seen it take 2 years from the first time they knew i was disabled and I openly spoke about it around them. Is this common? Why the heck so long?? Are they actively trying to hide it….or am i just missing a lot of subtle red flags? (Hard to imagine since @ this point I actively watch for them, but anything’s possible!)
I’ve been wondering about this recently, too. I mostly encounter it in professional contexts (and I’m not sure whether to describe my disabilities as physical or not since autism affects my movement in disabling ways but I’m not mobility-impaired), but I think it’s a similar dynamic.
I think that it’s that abled people really, really don’t know very much about disability. They don’t know about the sheer logistical challenges we face, and they *really* don’t know about the stigma.
They think, on some level, that disability is an overwhelming tragedy, and that if we do things other than be overwhelmed by tragedy, then disability can’t really matter much. And they are really, really not emotionally prepared to deal with the fact that disability matters all the time, and they’re not at all prepared to deal with it in a matter-of-fact way. And meanwhile, for us, it’s just *life*.
We learn early that it’s our job to protect abled people from ever having to notice either the logistical problems or the hate we face. And especially, we learn not to show that it hurts us. And double especially, we learn that we are not allowed to tell friends or caregivers or ~nice ladies~ or others that they are hurting us. And triple especially, we learn that we are not allowed to be angry because that’s ~just the way it is~ and ~people don’t understand~.
I think that protecting abled people from having to notice disability and ways we are harmed as disabled people goes so deep we do it automatically and without noticing most of the time. And abled people *really* don’t notice, because they think it’s normal and natural and have not had any need to challenge it. They feel completely entitled not to have to deal with disability, and the entitlement feels so natural that they don’t even *notice*. And we don’t notice how much we protect them, either.
Some of the people we protect have been exposed to a lot of disability awareness and sensitivity training. And who can recite a lot of information about various conditions, know not to pet service dogs, and would never touch someone’s mobility equipment, and who tell others off for using the r-word. And maybe they know what the ADA is and know a few horror stories about institutions in the 60s. And, they think that means they know how it is – they have no idea how sanitized all of that is.
Sensitivity training teaches them that we are just like them. It does not teach them to cope with all the ways in which we are very different.
I don’t have a good answer to this. The only that I’ve found is that it helps to be more open with my friends about what I am experiencing, what my limitations are, and how I feel about what is going on. There’s a price I pay for that, though. The other thing that helps is having more disabled friends, or friends who understand being marginalized in a way that your family is not (eg: I’ve found that some nondisabled LGBTQ people have been able to relate to a lot of this.)