Things That Are Not Cool to Say to a Person With Disabilities

Can I be real with y’all for a minute? No filter? Good, cuz yr girl needs to rant.

I’m pissed.

Like, the kind of pissed that comes from multiple encounters with ignorant people in a short period of time. (Keep in mind I rarely leave my house, so my thick shell of armor has become a semi-permeable membrane.)

First, let me take you back a couple of weeks to my dentist’s office. I went in for a new patient visit after seeing them the week before to make sure a tooth I chipped was okay (it was.) My husband’s been going to this practice ever since a tooth he chipped revealed thousands of dollars worth of work that needed to be done.

My first visit was great, and I got excited about the prospect of going there for my routine preventive cleanings (I know, I’m a nerd). I had filled out all my new patient paperwork online, including a comprehensive medical history. During the first visit, the dentist looked over my medical history, and we briefly discussed my cardiac arrhythmia — a condition for which I used to have to premedicate with antibiotics before getting any dental work — and the supplements I take regularly.

That was it, and I thought nothing of it. Typical dentist stuff.

But the second time I went in, a hygienist greeted me and promptly went into my medical history again. She went down the list of every single thing I had noted, including my mental health history.

In a loud voice, in an open space where other patients could overhear, she announced, “You have a mental illness? I would’ve never guessed.”

I gripped the edges of the exam chair.

“You just met me,” I calmly replied, repressing the urge to ask her exactly what she thought a person with a mental illness was supposed to look like.

But she didn’t drop it there.

“Mood disorder NOS, what does that mean?”

After blinking a few times to compose myself, I explained that I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 13, but my most recent diagnosis as an adult was mood disorder not otherwise specified, which — correct me if I’m wrong — falls under the greater umbrella of bipolar disorders. 

I found myself explaining too much when what I really wanted to do was tell her this was none of her damn business, and that no other dental hygienist had ever made such a big deal about my mental health history

But instead of standing up for myself, I crumpled.

I felt awkward and uncomfortable for so many reasons: 

1. We were talking in-depth about my medical history in a non-private place.

2. She started the conversation by making judgments about my mental health based on my appearance, which is stupid and offensive. While probably intending to compliment me on looking clean, organized, and fully capable of taking myself to a dental appointment, she was talking to a person who, at various points in life, was none of those things. I’ve also watched plenty of people with disabilities do things most typically functioning people cannot, like finish a 50-mile trail race. So, who’s to say what a person can or can’t do based on how they do or don’t look?

I am all of these brave, broken, and beautiful women at the same time. I love and cherish each version of me now so much more than I loathed her at the time. We’re inseparable.

Anyway, I somehow made it through the exam. To make things worse, she didn’t have time to do a cleaning, probably because she was so busy flapping her jaw about my mental health. I made an appointment to come back the next week but ended up calling and canceling it, telling them I was going to find another dentist closer to my home. This one was about 45 minutes away, and I was so shaky driving home I nearly turned down the wrong road twice.

So, that’s my story.

My husband’s story

My husband also has a disability and his own infuriating story.

Jason was accidentally shot in the head as a child, and the doctors had to remove one of his eyes to control the bleeding. His hearing and sense of smell were also affected due to the shrapnel and scar tissue in his sinuses.

He and I have a connection stronger than gold. When I was plummeting into a pit of suicidal depression, he was returning to public school after nearly a year in children’s hospitals with a walker and an eye patch.

Despite all this, Jason went on to be a college wrestler, pro downhill skier, and whitewater kayaker — two extreme sports that rely heavily on the depth perception only binocular vision can provide. He’s also a Michelin Star chef, entrepreneur, agricultural engineer, and a really great dog dad and husband. 

I’ll keep him.

I’m telling you all this because Jason is another person who “doesn’t look like they have a disability.” My blood is already beginning to boil as I prepare to type that he was told exactly that by the code enforcement officer of our town when he went to pick up a building permit last week.

Jason was recording his conversation with the code enforcement officer on his phone. He often does this so he can play back the conversation in case he missed anything due to his hearing impairment. However, this person was totally unwilling to accommodate his disability, saying, “I don’t have time for these games, Jason, you don’t look handicapped.”

WTF is wrong with people in Maine!? Are people with disabilities supposed to look a certain way? Should we wear badges or carry balloons so all y’all typically functioning folks know to keep your ignorant mouths shut in our presence?

There’s more.

This week, Jason and I went to a cannabis ordinance planning committee meeting at the town hall. Before the meeting, Jason removed his ocular prosthesis (fake eye) and donned his pirate-style eyepatch instead. It’s sexy. But that’s not why he wore it. Jason filed an ADA complaint, and the rep he spoke to suggested “not hiding” his disability from town employees.

The ADA folks were disgusted by the video of the code enforcement officer Jason submitted along with his complaint.

Anyway, when the lady writing the ordinance — who, btw, has no knowledge of cannabis whatsoever — sat down, she looked at Jason’s eyepatch and asked, “What, did someone poke you in the eye?”

My jaw dropped, then I started sweating. Another thing J and I have in common is a short fuse and explosive temper. If I had the impulse to go for this lady’s throat, there was no telling what he might do.

Alas, I’m proud to say my husband drew a deep breath, flipped up his eye patch, and calmly told this woman exactly what was up — including the part about the town employee who refused to accommodate his disability because he didn’t look handicapped.

Instead of shutting her mouth, this lady proceeded to tell us all about her husband’s heart condition. Then, she shared a story about a child with autism who walked out of a cooking class she taught because he got overwhelmed. “If they just told me he had autism, I could’ve found a dark room to put him in! But no, the HIPAA laws prevent it!”

Holy inappropriate, Batman.

Thank Goddess she got up shortly after that to let someone in, giving Jason, me, and Jason’s boss (the only other person at the meeting at the time) a short break to take slow, deep breaths and count backward from 5.

It didn’t help that the next person to join the meeting was an older man on the town council who didn’t look at Jason the entire time, even though he sat directly across from him. As fired up as I get about the stupid shit that comes out of people’s mouths, I’d rather them say it than pretend I’m not there. That’s just cold.

We got home from the meeting and joked about the flaming ignorance we had just witnessed. I thought I’d let it go. But small pangs of hurt and anger kept popping up in my body. I’d be laying in my reclining chair, trying to relax when the urge to get up and kick something suddenly washed over me.

Kicking things when I’m angry feels really good.

I talked to Jason about it, and he said he felt it, too. It probably wasn’t only the cannabis meeting, or the town employee, or the dental hygienist, but the culmination of those instances on top of a lifetime of feeling alone and misunderstood in a world of seemingly normal people.

But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that you never know what another person has gone through, or is going through. And maybe some of you seemingly normal people will relate to this story on some level, or maybe you know someone who can. After 38 years on this planet, I don’t believe anyone out there is actually normal, anyway 🙂

If you’re still with me, I want to thank you for reading. All the anger I felt has left my body through the process of writing these words. Now I’m crying, which I much prefer to anger. 

Tears are cleansing, and I am a Cancer, after all.

Please share this with anyone who might find comfort in reading.

Cover image by Brett Sayles via Pexels

6 thoughts on “Things That Are Not Cool to Say to a Person With Disabilities”

  1. Having a disability myself, I relate 100% to your grieving process. I think the shock and grief I feel every time I experience ableism and the associated attitudes is a good thing. (I will gladly live with my physical disabilities over an attitudinal impairment any day!) I hope you don’t mind me sharing that I see this shock in yours and Jason’s appropriate responses to ignorance on many levels. Your shock and grief with these experiences reflects your true compassion and wholeness. No one can take that from you, because it IS you. 💕

    1. I don’t want to hate on where I currently live, but I’ve never experienced such utter ignorance in my life! Mainers tend to hole up and keep to themselves, so I’m trying to explain it that way 😑

  2. Pingback: I miss the comfort in being sad - Luna Phoxx

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