Disability 101: Remembering

So, here's the thing: I am not an expert on disability advocacy, and I am not a great ally to people with disabilities, myself included. Not only do I hold myself to absurd standards to which I'd hold no one else when it comes to my anxiety disorder, but, over the past two years, I've developed an inflammatory disorder (chronic chondritis, affecting cartilage from my ears to my toes) that I ignore at my own peril and constantly make even worse because I'm so pissed at having a life-limiting physical disability that I pretend I don't have one until I am in so much pain that it literally hurts to breathe.

Point is: I don't have a lot of smart things to say about disability, even though (and maybe definitely for sure because) I am a person with disabilities. I'm not happy about that fact, but there it is.

I do, however, have a very basic recommendation re: interacting with people with disabilities that I want to share: If your family member, friend, or colleague has a disability, remember that zie has this disability.

Seriously. That's it. Remember that zie is a person with a disability.

(Provided, of course, one is not oneself a person with a disability that affects memory.)

I can't emphasize how important remembering is. To have to repeatedly remind someone who ostensibly cares about you that you have a disability is aggravating as hell. More than that, it puts people with disabilities into the awkward position of having to disclose our disabilities over and over (and over and over and over and over), which is tedious and can be humiliating, depending on the circumstances in which one is obliged to disclose personal information we expected you'd remember.

Failing to internalize the existence of a family member's, friend's, or colleague's disability also communicates to that person that you don't care enough about them to remember an important aspect of hir life, or simply don't give a fuck about hir disability. Additionally, many invisible disabilities carry with them narratives of "imagined" distress; some even have a history of being classified as psychosomatic disorders (especially if they're disorders found primarily in women). So "forgetting" carries a very real possibility of playing into narratives that suggest the disability isn't "real," or that your family member, friend, or colleague is "pretending" to be disabled.

I trust I don't need to explain in any sort of exacting detail what it feels like to be a person with a disability who is accused, explicitly or implicitly, of inventing a disorder. It feels shitty.

Failing to remember, thus obliging someone to repeatedly disclose a disability, also risks making that person feel like they're "talking too much" about hir disability, or "complaining." Many people with disabilities have experienced criticism for talking about their disabilities, or have been on the receiving end of exasperation expressed by someone who doesn't want to hear about it, for various reasons ranging from personal discomfort with difficult subjects to naked hostility to people with disabilities.

We often struggle to strike a balance between making sure people around us are aware of our disabilities and not playing into perceptions of attention-seeking, and "forgetting" makes finding that balance all the more difficult.

There have been all kinds of things written, by very smart people, about being sensitive to people with disabilities, and not saying things like "Hope you feel better soon!" to someone who isn't actually capable of "feeling better," and not recommending remedies or offering medical advice unsolicited, and not comparing your head cold to Sjögren's syndrome, and not making jokes like, "That picture's so sweet I've got diabetes now!", and not using ableist language, and making accommodations for accessibility, etc.

Practicing all of those very smart ideas about how to be a reliable ally to people with disabilities starts with the very basic step of remembering.

And in the moments when you do forget, be honest about that shit. It happens.

For the record, "Oh, I always forget because you don't look sick!" isn't a compliment. It's a deflection. And it's a tacit indictment of our failure to meet your stereotypes of disability. That ain't cool.

It isn't our job to "look sick." It's your job to remember.

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