While I know this is really minor compared to some things people go through on a regular basis, and my visible disability is temporary, I just wanted to share a story that happened to me yesterday. Not for reactions, just to point out that things like this happen. All the time.
I’m still on crutches, and as such, need to go with someone to the grocery store. My friend and I have a deal that involves a weekly trip, and we’ve been shopping together for more than a year. I keep him on task (he spaces out a lot, plus, I know where everything in the stores we go to is, and can quote prices, too), and he deals with people for me. It’s a good trade. So anyway, we were on our way out of a store last night, and were about 20 steps away from the register and obviously headed that way, when I got assaulted from the side. I say “assaulted” because that’s what it felt like, even though there was no traditional violence. This woman who works for the store walked up to us and stood right in my blind spot, walking straight at me, orthogonal to the direction we were going. I spooked and shied away, and she kept getting closer to me. Then she said (loudly) to my friend, “she can use an electric chair. Electric. Chair.” I kind of muttered “no thanks, I’m fine” and she repeated herself “she can use an electric chair”, still in my bubble of space. My friend responded “thank you, but we’re going to check out now” while I made a dash for it, hopping/hobbling as fast as I could, not looking back. I’m not sure whether there was more interaction, but I didn’t stick around to see it.
Now, from her point of view, I’m sure she thought she was being nice and considerate – offering me information to make my shopping trip “easier”. But there were so many things wrong with this interaction. First of all, she talked right through me, as if I weren’t even there. Now, I’m autistic, so sometimes I am talked through, but it’s rare. I wasn’t flapping or displaying any other “autistic” behaviors that would’ve lead her to jump to that conclusion, so I’ve got to assume that it was the crutches. Then she physically acted like I wasn’t there, getting right up close to me, but then talking right over my head to my friend, as if I didn’t exist. I couldn’t easily duck or get away – limited mobility. I tried, and she got closer. Grocery stores are stressful enough, with people and carts and fluorescent lights and all the awful, and I was already about to overload, and just wanted out. But instead, I got treated to this. Then she never even bothered to talk to ME. She only talked to my friend. Who is a taller male. I’m not sure which of the many things made her think that HE would be talking for me – the maleness, the tallness, the ablebodiedness or what, but it sucked. Then when I responded (after having a massive “oh shit, verbal processing, words, come on words, lets work” moment while she was getting closer and louder), she didn’t listen, and felt the need to repeat herself, again to my friend and not me. And never once did she ask “would you like an electric chair” or even “would she like an electric chair”. No, I was told. No, actually, my friend was told.
Grocery store personnel, and other people in public service jobs, should be trained to treat people like people. She acted like I was completely invisible. Like she didn’t see me at all. She even got physically into my personal space, as if I didn’t exist. Then she talked about me, right over my head. And the thing is, I’m not mad or furious or hurt by this. I was so stressed out in the moment of the interaction that it took me until this morning to figure out what actually happened. I’m kind of confused, but I know what happened. I am aware of ablism and the nasty faces it takes. I’ve been at the butt of it on a few occasions, and I’ve read numerous peoples’ experiences with it on a daily basis. This was comparatively tame, and I have the luxury of knowing that when I’m finally off crutches and able to walk again, that it probably won’t happen again. (Until the next time I forget to watch where I’m walking, anyway…)
But now I’m terrified of going into the only major grocery store I’m comfortable with, because I’ve been sensory assaulted in there, and I don’t want to go through that again. Honestly, for me, the worst part of it wasn’t her talking over me. It wasn’t her ignoring my presence and talking to my friend, or rendering me mostly invisible. It was her complete lack of boundaries – coming into my bubble and staying there, even moving with me to continue to violate my space, all while talking loudly, that was the immediate problem for me. Only after the fact, did I realize exactly what had happened and perhaps why. It’s amazing how only a tiny little, rather commonplace, temporary visible disability can turn you in people’s minds from a person to a non-person. I can only imagine the disrespect and non-regard that comes from more.