real life

'I overheard strangers say how upsetting it is to be avoided in public. That's normal for me.'

You can’t ‘catch’ a disability. I thought this was obvious but sadly, my observations over the years would prove otherwise.

I overheard a conversation the other day in which the socially distanced participants each chimed in about this new normal. Whereby strangers are very consciously avoiding each other out in public.

Obviously, there’s good reason for this and Australia’s strict social distancing measures are presumably just one of the reasons why the country is, so far, not as impacted by COVID as many other countries – touch wood.

Watch: Vanessa Cranfield on parenting a child with a disability. Post continues below.

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The conversation (which I inconspicuously yet very intently tuned into while waiting for my takeaway coffee) went on to explore, ‘how weird, awkward and upsetting it felt’ when strangers intentionally and very obviously tried to avoid you out in public.

As one person put it, “I have to remind myself not to be offended when everyone is clearly trying to keep away from me at the moment.”

Again, I’m well aware that social distancing is a good thing right now. But overhearing the commentary made me reflect on my own experiences.

The truth is, this new normal is normal for me and many other people.

It didn’t always happen but I can pinpoint the exact time in which strangers first began to distance themselves around me.

There was no global pandemic but my family and I were going through our own personal pandemic when, following medical emergencies, I acquired multiple disabilities and have been using a wheelchair ever since.

The disabilities don’t bother me nearly as much as they bother other people. Particularly strangers who don’t know me but know from a single glance that I have at least one disability.

And in their minds, that can only mean one thing. I’m sick and possibly contagious. Therefore, they must move themselves (and maybe their children) away from me before they ‘catch something’.

Examples of this conscious or unconscious behaviour can include (but not be limited to):

Strangers who keep a noticeably greater distance from me in a supermarket line, compared to other shoppers.

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Strangers who take an unnecessarily wide sidestep when passing me by.

Strangers who make a not-so-subtle move away from me when I’m in a group of people.

 

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When getting out to check the mailbox is reason to get OUT and celebrate! ???? Some days get a bit like that in #isolife⁠ ⁠ A few restrictions have been lifted where I live but only a few.⁠ Closures are different in every country but which ones are affecting you the most?⁠ ⁠ Schools? Restaurants? Gyms? Retail? Beauty? Etc, etc…⁠ ⁠ Obviously if you were employed there, now is a really ???? time and I (like so many others) can’t wait until your doors open again!⁠ ⁠ I’m doing ok with the mental challenges of isolation and I know some of you are used to this lifestyle for a lot of different reasons.⁠ ⁠ But physically, I’m struggling.⁠ ⁠ Apart from being able to hug loved ones and travel, I’m personally missing the gym most (and I realise that’s a pretty privileged position to be in considering what’s happening elsewhere).⁠ ⁠ My body isn’t happy with me right now because I haven’t been able to move it as much or in the same way that I can at the gym.⁠ ⁠ The result: Everything hurts. Muscles/joints have seized up and even teeny tiny little muscles (that I didn’t know I had until now) have spat the dummy and feel like they’re on fire 24/7.⁠ ⁠ No matter what a random #fitspo #influencer tells you, doing workouts at home is nowhere near the same as getting to the gym. Especially when it’s ♿ #adaptivefitness⁠ ⁠ So back to my question… What sorts of places/facilities/etc are you missing the most in quarantine?⁠ ⁠ Stay safe and have a wonderful day doing whatever small things you can to stay occupied ????xx⁠ ⁠ #visibiityfordisability #fitness

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I realise such acts are each very small and seemingly insignificant but when these micro-aggressions happen multiple times, week after week and year after year, it becomes exhausting.

Then there are stories like the one from my friend (also in a wheelchair) who watched the taxi driver wipe down his seat and door handle with disinfectant wipes once he’d exited the cab. But never repeated the process where his non-disabled friend sat.

I’m well aware that I am certainly not the only person this happens to. I’ve heard and read accounts by other individuals in marginalised communities who have experienced similar situations over the years, decades and centuries.

Except this time, people were avoiding them because of something else like skin colour, for example.

But as a white, heterosexual woman, I’ll let those with lived-experience tell their own stories.

Like much of my advocacy work, I’m able to compare and contrast a life before disabilities and after to exemplify my point.

I know for a fact that people never tried that hard to distance themselves from me in public when I had two legs and walked around town. Unless I was coughing or sneezing of course, but that’s understandable.

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So why is this happening?

My examples may be endless but the reason is fairly simple: Misrepresentation.

All disabilities are on a spectrum but media and other forms of popular culture fail to adequately represent this spectrum.

So often the only time we see disability represented in mainstream media and popular culture (unless it’s the Paralympics or inspiration porn) is when the disabled person IS indeed sick or in a hospital ward with an illness.

*Cue sad music for dramatic effect.*

That’s not to say that people with disabilities don’t spend time in hospital or get sick but it’s not the ONLY way we exist.

Think about it, when’s the last time you saw someone in any sort of media or other mainstream popular culture who was just driving the kids to school, doing the laundry, heading to the office boardroom, grocery shopping, at the bar or any other of the zillion ‘normal’ things that many disabled people do each day?

Or when’s the last time you saw someone interviewed in the media about the budget, fashion, childcare, climate change or something else that wasn’t about illness, disability or the NDIS?

It does happen occasionally but it’s incredibly rare.

Our media must do better by including more people with disabilities (about 20 per cent of our population) in mainstream popular culture.

I’ve worked in media, marketing and advertising long enough and produced enough content to know that it’s not impossible to do.

My own disabilities mean that people make stereotypical assumptions about me all the time. It’s frustrating but I always remember that most of the time, people are only acting on their preconditioned beliefs.

Beliefs that, although hurtful, were innocent because they have been ingrained over many years and decades of misrepresentation in mainstream media and other popular culture

Unfortunately, it’s what they’ve been conditioned to believe, where, most of the time, DISABLED = SICK.

So as a final Public Service Announcement before I finish (I don’t believe I’m doing this but clearly some people need to be reminded)…

Wheelchairs and prosthetics are not contagious.

You can’t ‘catch’ Down Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, a brain injury, blindness, deafness or other disabilities by standing too close to a disabled person.

So continue to keep your distance while the government says you have to but once life goes back to normal, please know that disabilities are not contagious and you can’t just come down with one after standing too close to me at the checkout.

Lisa Cox is an award-wining writer, author, presenter and inclusion advocate. She is also part of the team at Media Diversity Australia and is working to ensure disability is better represented in the media and other mainstream popular culture.

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