While some disabilities are immediately evident, other disabilities are invisible. Beginning in childhood, people with disabilities who have the option of passing as nondisabled often get in the habit of hiding their disabilities. For example, a visually impaired person who is being shown a map might pretend that he/she can see the map while actually listening for clues to the correct way to his/her destination. In this way, and hundreds of others, the disabled person lives as nondisabled.
What are the reasons for passing? Generally, people with disabilities are depicted in media as either pathetic, or as heroes, people who’ve overcome. There isn’t much middle ground. People with disabilities internalize stereotypes just as much as nondisabled people do. Not at all sure that they can be heroes, and not wanting to be seen as pathetic, people with disabilities will often try to erase their disabilities from perception; to top it off, they get praise for this, too. Nondisabled people seem to believe it is the highest compliment to say to a person with a disability, “I never think of you as disabled. ” If we can downplay our disabilities, almost to the point of disappearance maybe, we figure, we can have a normal life with friends, people who find us appealing.
Unemployment among people with disabilities who are capable of working is at staggeringly low levels (and I’m talking pre-recession here). Practically speaking, if you are a person with a disability who can pass at a job interview, you should pass; it may mean the difference between employment and unemployment. That’s a painful fact, and I have had a lot of trouble swallowing it; but, I’ve learned the hard way that if you can’t get a foot in the door of the workplace, you can’t begin to change it.
So, clearly, there are times when passing is the best (if unpalatable) choice. What I want to emphasize, though, is that passing is only empowering when it is a choice. If one passes by habit or based on an internalized belief that a disability is a shameful, embarrassing attribute, then one has little chance of living an authentic, integrated life. People with disabilities who spend their lives passing can never relax, as any moment of letting down their guards may lead to detection. Additionally, their capacities for self-awareness and for intimate relationships with others are diminished by the fact that, on some level, they are always putting on an act.
Liberation from passing comes through casting out shame and through recognizing that without one’s disability, one would not stay the same person. I, for example, would not have become a counselor if I had been able-bodied—and I love being a counselor. That casting out process, however, is not a short or easy business. When I think of the agonies of self-consciousness I went through in first persuading myself to publicly wield my monocular (for reading street signs, wall menus, subtitles, etc.), I remember what a grand endeavor self-liberation can be.
In addition to the great emotional, personal, and interpersonal tolls internalized oppression and passing can take on people with disabilities, passing also causes a lot of practical problems. If I want to get to my meeting on time, and I can’t read the number on the bus approaching the stop, then I need to ask the stranger standing next to me what the number is, and I need to tolerate whatever that person’s judgments may be of a person who can’t read bus numbers. If I don’t ask for help, then I may get on the wrong bus, or I may miss the bus I need. At a certain point, my desire to accomplish my own goals and live my life as I see fit, surpassed my horror of what people would think. But, leading up to that point, I’d had a lot of anxious moments at bus stops.
Both my personal and clinical experience suggest to me that asking for help is particularly difficult for people with disabilities as, even more than others in this do-it-yourself society we live in, disabled people are terrified of being perceived as helpless, which is, after all, so dangerously close to the pathetic label that is our greatest fear. One thing I suggest to my disabled clients who struggle with the issue of asking for help is that they start looking for opportunities to help others. Whether disabled or nondisabled, we all need help sometimes. Helping and being helped is what holds humans together in a community.
I dream of the day when our disabled children will grow up without having to pass, and subsequently, be able to mature without spending 20 years unlearning that procedure.
In the meantime, there’s counseling.
© Copyright 2010 by By Wendy E. Smith, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.