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What We Should Learn From the Way My Mailman Judged My Disability

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I doubt anyone has ever started their own personal self-evaluation with the words, “I am a judgmental person.” We all know those people, and we all like to think that isn’t us. But how many of us, even those of us who belong to the disabled community, can be so unequivocal about our own prejudices? I can’t, and I’m pretty sure you can’t either. After all, how many times have you found yourself saying, “I don’t like to judge, but” or “It isn’t my place to judge, but…”?

A lot?

More than a few?

More than none?

The devil is in the details, folks, and that little “but” is the Magic Eraser of verbal communication. It doesn’t matter what you said before it or how much you think you meant it. The word “but” removes all traces of what might have gone before.

Judgments hurt.

They hurt those being judged and those doing the judging — a thing I learned only after I was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

As years go, 2017 stunk. I received my diagnosis in late 2016 and in true denial fashion thought I could will myself through its torturous symptoms. I returned to work, only to lose that job because I could no longer do it. This disease had just stolen my years of schooling and difficult clinical rotations, and I was still 100 percent convinced I didn’t have it. I mean, I Googled it, and I did not look like the pictures. (Word to the wise, do not Google a disease – any disease – and then click on the “images” link as your first exposure to information post-diagnosis.)

By early 2017 my symptoms were progressing rapidly. Maybe living in the Northeast moved things along. CRPS doesn’t seem to respond well to cold weather. Maybe the stress of losing the job I loved and fighting the workers’ compensation system was too much of a drain. I won’t ever know why, but life started to get more difficult as my symptoms progressed from just pain to full spasms. My fingers began to lock in place at random times, and I lost strength and dexterity to the point that holding silverware became problematic. The amount of pain medication I needed to stop the pain left me unable to function, and taking less made every breath agonizing. My days consisted of wandering around the house in an aimless stupor or just sitting on the couch. Just sitting. I stopped sleeping and slipped into a deep depression. Our two-income family became one, placing a huge weight on my husband, the sole-proprietor of his own firm. He left for work early and got home late. The cold weather of early 2017 dragged on and snow piled up — snow I could not shovel, and snow that, as the resident of a detached house, was our responsibility to remove and manage. We purchased what seemed like a good solution: a set of mats that heated up and were meant to melt the ice and snow. They were imperfect at best, only marginally operational at worst, but we hoped they would at least keep our front steps from turning into solid ice until my husband could make it home and properly take care of them.

And then the doorbell rang.

My mail carrier was at the door, and when I opened it, he told me that he was there to warn me he would no longer deliver my mail if I did not shovel the stairs when it snowed. I apologized to him and told him my husband was at work, that the moment he came home it would be taken care of. I pointed out the mats we bought but understood he may have still felt unsafe. He told me the mats were the only reason he decided to give me the courtesy of a warning. I apologized again and assured him if our mail went undelivered on a snowy day, I would understand. His response left me stunned.

“I give all the other houses a break because they are off working.  You are here all day so you have no reason you can’t shovel the steps; you are just being lazy.”

I couldn’t do anything but watch him as he left and cry after he was gone. This was how I looked to the rest of society. Unworthy because I no longer worked. Lazy because I could no longer shovel the stairs. Looking back with a year’s distance, there are a lot of things I wish I had said to him that day, but not a single one centers around my disability.

I am more upset that he judged me for the simple fact I was at home rather than somewhere else. I could have been a household employee, a stay-at-home mother or the caregiver to a relative. What if I had been too weak to shovel the steps or too sick? What if I too was actually at work but from a home office that left me no time to address the snow? He had delivered his warning; nothing else need be said. But my mail carrier was willing to give every other house on the block extra time to shovel because the residents of every other house on the block had “extra value” I didn’t. Why did my perceived lack of job automatically mean I contributed less to society? He judged and found me lacking, and for a long time, I allowed this interaction to shape my self-worth, not because this one civil servant had so much power but because it was the last, loudest note in a symphony of judgment. Sighs behind me in the checkout lines when my fingers fumbled with coins; rolled eyes that inevitably heralded some combination of the words “still not working.” My disability is invisible, and it means that along with all the other things I’ve lost, I’ve also lost the benefit of the doubt. The days of my being judged on an even field by many members of our society are well and truly behind me, and that is not likely to change. Laws about equal access and regulations around pre-existing conditions and pain management may never alter people’s biases and prejudices. Society needs to learn to stop placing such a strong emphasis on what it is we do as a job and care more about the character of the person.

However true this may be, I will never stop fighting to keep legal protections in place. Experiences and interactions like the one I talked about demonstrate why they are still very much needed in society.

Getty image by Patrickmorrisseyphoto

Originally published: March 16, 2018
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