When People Say They Forget About My Disability
A few months ago, one of my officemates asked me to help her word an email. She pointed to her screen and asked if she was getting her point across. I responded, “Oh please, you know there’s no way I can see that!” She read the questionable wording out loud, and I provided my feedback.
She then chimed in, “Isn’t it a compliment I forget about your vision loss?” I paused, choosing my words carefully, and shared that although it is flattering that she does not see me as defined by my disability, my vision loss is a core piece of my identity that impacts how I live my life. My vision loss is central to my daily experience; it seems unfathomable that it is easily and frequently forgotten.
Many friends and family members have shared how unnoticeable my vision loss is to them. This is said wholeheartedly as a compliment. Although I recognize the good intentions, I no longer view this as a compliment. Candidly, I find it offensive.
I haven’t always felt this way. A few years ago, I would have enthusiastically responded “It is a huge compliment that you don’t see me as disabled!” I never aspired for my vision loss to become a part of my identity. Passing as sighted was a badge of honor.
Still, I continue to be sensitive to the ways in which my vision loss is apparent. I feel self-conscious when I spill, make jokes when I run into things, and try desperately to make it appear as if I’m making eye contact, even if I can’t see your face. Embedded in these lingering insecurities, there is a piece of me that is flattered when you say this is unnoticed. In that moment, I feel like perhaps I’m not that different; perhaps I can pass as sighted.
At the same time, I am and will likely always be disabled. I strive to be transparent about my vision loss, which requires me to put my shame aside, ask for help when I need it, and avoid minimizing the consequences of low vision. Confidence and comfort in my body’s abilities requires me to move past the brief glory of passing as sighted. It isn’t glorious to pretend to be someone I’m not, and it isn’t a compliment that you see me as someone I’m not. I am enough, even if I spill and run into things and cannot make eye contact. When you tell me that it’s a compliment that you don’t notice or remember these aspects of me, I receive the message that it is not flattering to appear disabled.
I challenge the notion that passing as able-bodied is flattering. I want it to be flattering to recognize the diverse spectrum of human ability. Maybe one day, I’ll be afforded the compliment, “I could never forget your disability because it is a core part of your identity. It would be like forgetting your name, race, or gender. Your difference in ability makes you who you are, and I will forever notice you.”
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