Hello Nicole - June 1991

Hello Nicole,

The other day I went into a store to return a shirt.  I had an able bodied friend along with me.  When I got to the counter the clerk wouldn’t speak to me.  Instead she talked only to my friend.  We tried several times to direct the clerk’s attention to me, since I was the person returning the shirt, but she simply wouldn’t talk to me.  How can I deal tactfully with this problem and avoid so much embarrassment?

Sincerely, Invisible


Dear Invisible:

It starts when we are little babies and our parents grab us away from wheelchairs as they pass by.  We learn that disabled people should not be spoken to, looked at, or dealt with.

Those of us who are disabled pick up on this avoidance, often from the time we are babies.  One day we discover that we are being treated differently than our able bodied friends.  We are given guarded smiles and pitiful sympathy.  People avert their eyes as we pass.  Their parents never taught them how to relate to the person, they were too busy hurrying away from the dangerous wheelchair.

Once we become aware of this basic avoidance we suddenly feel quite invisible.  Noticing the fear in other people when you speak to them, that they don’t exactly know how to respond to you, look at you, or think about you is devastating.  It was a very lonely and frightening day when I first felt this avoidance, this separation, in my heart.

Every time a person looks past you and speaks to your able bodied friend, they are really trying to avoid looking at their own fear and discomfort.  People will avoid their fears at all cost.  They elaborately rationalize why they “can’t” speak to the disabled person.  Some people have the idea that disabled people can’t talk, think, feel emotions — or even be live human beings.  Other people see us more like children, needing someone to be our spokesperson and advocate, because we simply can’t function on our own.

As human beings, equal in every respect, it is our responsibility to demand personhood from the general public.  When people look past us we have to wake up and become that persons parent.  We have to guide that person to learn how to look at us and speak to us, despite their terrible resistance.  If we passively allow them to talk only to our able bodied friend we are ourselves reinforcing their feelings of avoidance.  We cannot allow them to avoid us.  When people look past us the most important thing we can do is assert ourselves as human beings.  Raise our voices at the clerk (be it literally or figuratively), do not try to be “tactful” as they are being absurd themselves.

—Nicole