I think that most people with disabilities have heard many people say, “I don’t see you as disabled!” in a tone that implies that this is a compliment.
It’s a strange thing to say. It’s especially strange since they will say that about even the most conspicuously and stereotypically disabled people. It sounds like an obvious lie.
I’ve been realizing lately that some people who say things like that aren’t lying. They really *don’t* see us as disabled, because they’re mentally editing out the disability.
They sort the world into people they can respect, and people they can regard as significantly disabled. So if they respect someone, they mentally edit out the disability. They can see a person and they can see adaptive equipment, but they refuse to see the disability.
They assume that, since they respect you and see you as a real person, that you’re not *really* disabled. They think that you may have a condition, but that you would ~never let it define or limit you~. They think that you can overcome everything with the sheer power of determination and positive thinking. They think that ~the only disability in life is a bad attitude~, and that, since you don’t have a bad attitude, you can’t possibly be disabled in any significant way.
And in real life, disability always matters. As Stella Young said, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.” There will be times when things aren’t accessible. There will be things we can’t do. There will be times when disability suddenly becomes visible and undeniable.
When disability clearly and visibly matters, people who ~don’t see us as disabled~ tend to lash out. Because then, as they see it, we’re not upholding our end of the bargain. We’re supposed to be the kind of people who don’t let disability matter. And if we’re the kind of people who can’t or won’t ~overcome disability~, then they don’t know how to respect us. And things can get really bad really quickly.
Short version: When people say that they “don’t see you as disabled”, they’re not always lying or awkwardly trying to be police. Sometimes they mean it. When they mean it, it’s often for a frightening reason. Proceed with caution among people who sincerely refuse to see disability.