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The Problem With Telling Someone 'I Don't See You as Disabled'

Hannah Radenkova
Double exposure of woman's face and sunset.

Recently the hashtag #DisabledCompliments spread around Twitter explaining the various backhanded compliments disabled people are offered on the regular. I recommend you check out the hashtag, but especially in the light of Disability Pride events happening at the moment, I want to address one of the responses: “I don’t see you as ‘disabled.’”

This is a fairly common thing to hear, and it’s pretty clear those saying it think they’re paying you a compliment. But “don’t worry, I don’t see you as…” never ends with a positive statement. The most common way of ending that sentence is with something negative. “Lazy,” “stupid,” “bossy,” “weak,” whatever it is. It’s said to reassure someone they’re not something bad. It’s a statement of commiseration. And even if the person saying it loves the disabled person, they’re still saying they think negatively of the disabled community at large.

A disabled person doesn’t stop being disabled because you don’t see them as such. They know they are. They now also know you think being disabled is inherently negative. They might now worry you’re less likely to be understanding of their limitations, or help them with things if you don’t think they’re “disabled enough.”

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Not being considered disabled, or disabled enough, is a legitimate health risk for a lot of us. It means we’re less likely to be given access to support (monetary and otherwise) and things we need to live a healthy life. This is especially true of those with invisible illnesses. If someone said “I don’t see you as ‘having a severe peanut allergy’” to someone with a severe peanut allergy, it would a) be ridiculous, because they do, and b) make them extremely wary about eating anything the person got them.

I don’t like being disabled by my chronic illness, but my chronic illness happens to be very disabling. Some people’s might be less so; we are not one homogeneous entity. Some may have had their illness or disability their whole life. They likely see it as an integral part of their personalities, just like being left-handed, gay or particularly keen on avocados. Our differences don’t make disabled people lacking. Whether we like it or not, those illnesses or disabilities are a part of us.

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It is not for you to presume that someone dislikes a part of themselves. If you came up to someone, particularly a stranger, and said, “don’t worry, I don’t see you as ugly,” that would not be a compliment. And if you replaced “disabled” with any other minority group? Still looking like a compliment? No. You would sound racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic etc. You do not get to decide what someone is or isn’t, and you do not get to decide whether the thing they are (or aren’t) is acceptable.

This issue relates very closely to the “don’t let your disability be your identity” trope. Disability or chronic illness is seen as something so negative, the concept of being proud of it or including it in our outward persona is completely incomprehensible to some people. It’s often framed as a tool to try and motivate disabled people into more fulfilling lives, but the key here is that people think that “fulfilling” means “as an abled person lives.”

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This concept is so ingrained, many people find it impossible to comprehend someone living a fulfilling life and being disabled. They assume the two are mutually exclusive, and therefore that anyone who isn’t pursuing an abled concept of living a fulfilled life is giving up on life altogether.

Those who struggle the most to seem “normal” and don’t talk about their conditions are often the most rewarded by society, even if doing so is injuring them or exacerbating their problems. When people accept their conditions, they’re often considered to have “given up,” especially if the steps they take to make their lives easier also make them appear more visibly disabled.

“Giving up on life” is bandied about a lot. But giving up on an abled life is not giving up on life. It’s knowing your limitations, accepting them and living the most fulfilling life you can. Everyone, disabled or not, has limitations. Most abled people are not able to live the most fulfilling life they want to either, because they don’t have access to the funds or support necessary to do so. Perhaps they deal with another kind of discrimination that prohibits them from doing things they’d otherwise enjoy. Very few people achieve all their dreams in life.

There are things in this life I know I may not get to do because of my condition, and that is heartbreaking. But there is absolutely no guarantee I’d be given the opportunity to do them if I wasn’t sick. None. That is life.

Some people with disabilities do achieve amazing things, but the inspiration porn phenomenon can be damaging to disabled and chronically ill people. Disabled people achieving things are held up to society in general as proof humans can do anything “if they just put their mind to it.” Those who don’t excel or achieve these things are looked down upon. Disabled and chronically ill people are treated both as less than human and more than human, often at the same time.

When society continually puts people like you forward as inspiration fodder, but looks down on those of your group who don’t excel, it can make you feel jaded. It can make you feel ashamed of who you are, because we are no less immune to these assumptions than anyone else. But it can also make you double down and feel all the more determined to be proud of who you are.

I don’t pretend to know everything about this subject; our issues are complex and I can’t speak for such a massive, diverse group. But I know this. We’re not performing monkeys. We aren’t here to make people feel good about themselves, push them to make something of themselves, or teach some grand, important lesson in life. If someone learns something, fine, but we’re not background characters in an abled person’s life; we’re the stars of our very own technicolor stories.

Yes, we have issues. We have to do things differently, or not at all. But, you know what? So do lots of people. I can’t go run a marathon. A lot of abled people can, but they don’t. I can draw, pretty bloody well, actually. A lot of abled people can’t.

We’re not more or less than human. If anything we are a concentrated version of humanity — its ingenuity, flexibility and ability to cope with change, perseverance, and yes, its pain, struggles and lowest moments where sometimes there is no recovery. We are a diverse minority, with people from every race, religion, age, gender and sexuality. We are a microcosm of all the ups and downs in life, and all the ways people can respond to them is displayed in each of us.

We’re not subhuman or superhuman; we’re arguably the most human humans. One way or another, by accident or age, you’re probably going to be one of us — and that’s OK. You should be bloody proud of it.

Because we are.

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