It astonishes me to witness the treatment that persons with disabilities must endure. I’m referring to folks who make their way through life with a speech impediment, in a wheelchair, with a cane, wearing leg braces, fitted with a prosthetic arm, and others. Central to this treatment is their uncanny ability to disappear.
No joke. I’ve witnessed it. On the street, at the grocer, in stores, you name it. It’s quite remarkable and I’m always amazed. I’m also saddened. What makes their invisibility so significant is the way it happens. It’s the opposite from what you might think.
Most of us have seen a magician make something disappear for an audience, right? Well when it comes to folks with disabilities the reverse happens: it’s the people watching who make the person with a disability vanish. Into thin air, without even a wand. Unlike with a stage magician, it’s not the least bit entertaining. In fact it’s rude and insensitive.
A particular incident haunts me. It happened long ago, was when I was a kid. I was headed into a store when a boy walking with his mother unexpectedly collapsed and began shaking violently. I froze. Unsure of what to do, I just stood there a moment and watched.
Then it happened: the people in the store made him disappear. I was there and saw it with my own eyes. I kid you not. There was no mistaking his invisibility because people just passed right by him as if he wasn’t there.
Oh, a few looked in his direction but I suspect they were looking at his mom who was on her knees pleading for help. They couldn’t have seen the boy lying there experiencing convulsions because they would have stopped to render assistance. Right? But nobody did for the longest.
Now granted, not every able person can achieve the dubious feat of rendering another person invisible – just the one’s who’d rather not see the truth. The truth that there are people living on this planet who are not exactly like us. Don’t look like us, don’t move like us, or don’t talk like us.
“Us” being the ones who are uncomfortable with difference. Or intolerant of it. “Us” being those who mistakenly believe there is only one kind of normal. A single, inflexible standard of being. You know, that kind of nonsense.
Persons with disabilities aren’t the only ones who can be rendered invisible. Take the homeless, for instance. A person without a permanent residence can be standing right there, on a street corner in full view, maybe holding a sign. Or laying on the sidewalk, exposed to the elements. Folks move right past as if another human being isn’t present.
Women can be rendered invisible too. Maybe you’ve witnessed it. Here’s a common scenario: she’s sitting with a bunch of men and says something, maybe important or relevant to conversation. Then it happens. She becomes invisible. Or rather, the men in the room make her invisible. As if she hadn’t said a word.
Young people have it done to them too. With great regularity, I might add. They can be right there, with a group of adults, say something meaningful or from the heart, and the grownups continue as if they don’t hear a word the youth said. It’s magic. It’s also dehumanizing.
I am not immune from the affliction of rendering others invisible. I am also working diligently to stop my own unintentional (yet nonetheless hurtful) acts of ableism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination. The best way is by listening for understanding when a person shares how they are made to feel. Who will join me in the conversation?