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How 'Passing' Can Harm Disabled People

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The term “passing” refers to any person trying to identify with a group other than their own. It’s typically done under negative social pressure to “pass” as a more homogeneous, mainstream, and popularly-accepted identity for reasons of safety, to avoid being subjected to discrimination, and/or to make people around them more “comfortable.” It can be a draining and tragically inauthentic way to live.

Disabled people sometimes try to pass as able-bodied. People with hidden disabilities can often entirely pass, but it’s not easy. We tap into physical energy and emotional resources that are already in short supply at the expense of the rest of our day, or the rest of our week. I can pass as able-bodied and go out with my friends, but the next day I’m not going to be able to work nearly as much as I would if I stayed home the evening before.

Even people with visible disabilities try to pass. During my recent back injury, I tried to walk with a more normal gait, even though it increased my pain. I have a friend who built his wheelchair so he sits as high as possible, to be closer to the height of people who are standing.

We will go out of our way to be prepared for upcoming events, even if it means using up a day to visit a place ahead of time so we’re more comfortable and less “disabled” when we’re there with our friends or family.

So many of us smile through our discomfort, pain, fatigue and nervousness just to make it easier on those around us.

I will pretend to not be interested in ideas or events when the truth is I’d love to go but I worry I might not be able to handle sitting or standing or the loud noise. I just don’t want to say that out loud. It ruins the illusion.

As the awareness advocate that I am, I realize I need to suck it up and stop making fake excuses. I need to stop passing and be my authentic disabled self.

By the way, if you’ve noticed me using the word “disabled” instead of person-first language (“person with disabilities”), it’s because many of us are taking the word disabled back. It’s because I believe person-first language does more to help able-bodied people feel more comfortable than it does to make us more comfortable. What it’s actually doing is reinforcing the pressure on us to minimize or even hide our disabilities. To pass.

So yes, I’m doing the work to be more authentic. It’s a process. For now, I can at least make you aware. I can spotlight that you might be trying to pass, too. We can let others know that passing is something disabled people may try to do.

What can you do, beyond mere awareness, to help? That’s as simple as saying genuinely, “You never have to pretend around me.”

You never have to pretend around me.

Getty image by iiievgeniy.
Originally published: November 12, 2019
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