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Disabled People Have the Right to Be Heard

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For the past month, I’ve been privileged to volunteer my Saturday afternoons working in a COVID vaccine clinic. Specifically, I work in the observation room telling people why they have to wait, giving them 15-minute timers, and wiping down tables and chairs when they leave. Our location gave around 100 shots in the four hours I was there this past Saturday – six appointments every 15 minutes. We are busy and there is rarely time to rest.

With the constant stream of people, I have had many interactions with patients and caregivers as we are currently serving the 65+ age group who also have preexisting conditions. Of these very brief interactions, one sticks out with me the most, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

A male caregiver (I’ll call Carl) brought a disabled woman (I’ll call Mable) in for her first shot. Mable was using a wheelchair and also exhibited signs of having an intellectual disability. As they came into the observation room, as I do with every new person, I explained the process to both of them – that they must wait 15 minutes to make sure no reaction would happen and that everyone felt good before they went home.

When I was talking, Mable tried to ask why she was in the room, just as Carl told her to not ask questions and that “he was listening.” Instead of allowing Mable the chance to ask her question, Carl’s quick dismissal of her concern gave the appearance that he does not appreciate the intelligence and emotional capacity of Mable.

I had the gut reaction of wanting to tell Carl, and the rest of the people in the room, that disabled people have the right to be heard.

Immediately, I said it was OK for her to ask her question and then I answered it the best way I could so she could understand. All Mable wanted to know was why she had to wait. Mable’s question was completely appropriate for the situation and shows that she values her time. I explained that we wanted to make sure she felt good before she went home.

I don’t know Carl’s relationship to Mable or how long they have worked together, but him telling her to not ask questions was ableist and sad, especially knowing he was playing the role of caretaker at that time. I’m guessing this probably wasn’t the only time Mable has ever been talked over in her life.

I felt hurt by Carl’s display of ableism. I felt hurt by Carl assuming Mable couldn’t understand what was happening instead of giving her a chance. I felt hurt by Carl expecting me to talk directly to him instead of acknowledging that there were two people in front of me.

I wonder how that conversation would have happened if Carl knew that I had cerebral palsy and that I recognize that even the most severely disabled people are people too and deserve to be treated the same way as everyone else.

I wish Carl never told Mable to stop, but I’m glad I caught what was happening and pushed back. I wasn’t going to let Carl’s ableism win. I’m glad I didn’t even hesitate for a second before deciding to address Mable.

I’m not writing this as a “look at me, I did the right thing” and looking for congratulations.

I am writing this as a reminder that everyone deserves to use their voice and be heard regardless of their ability.

I am writing this as a reminder to not speak over or brush aside the concerns of a disabled person because the caretaker is “listening.”

I am writing this to show that no one is immune from committing ableist acts, no matter how well they understand disability, because the lies ableism tells us are fed to us since the day we are born and reinforced by society on a daily basis.

But ultimately, I’m writing this for Mable, because she is just as human as the rest of us and deserves nothing less than compassion, love and understanding. Mable deserves to be heard.

Getty image by Ridofranz.

Originally published: February 28, 2021
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