“But I Don’t See You As Disabled!” The Flip Side of “But You Look so Normal!”

If someone finds out I’m hard of hearing, one common response is, “But you look so normal!” Since I first confronted that statement as a junior in college, I now know how to feel when someone says it. I have made peace with the implication of the statement because I know the idea comes from ignorance. With a little bit of patience, time, and education, the inference of “But you look so normal!” can easily fade.

What is still a stumbling block for me is when people tell me, “But I don’t see you as disabled!” This statement is one that is far more common than “But you look so normal!”. Variations of it have been applied to other minorities, who have responded by discussing the destructiveness of this idea. Most notably, George Takei wrote a blog post called “I Don’t Even Think of You as Gay.” “Well, You Should.” which explained why it matters for a gay individual to be recognized by their peers. When talking about ignoring characteristics that make one a minority, Takei said: “That person has likely suffered internal conflict, social opprobrium, and personal pain that you have never experienced. So long as there is prejudice and inequality, it will continue to matter.” Absolutely is Takei correct in this idea, but where it becomes complicated (for me, at least) is in the consequences of being seen as “disabled.”

When people see me as “disabled”, they can derive “sound reasoning” for why denying an opportunity is actually in my benefit. An example is when I was denied AP U.S. History at my high school. The minimum score needed in all three trimesters to earn a spot was an 87. My first and third trimesters had scores of 91, but my second trimester had a score of 86.5. It was in that trimester that a cartilage graft tympanoplasty failed in a freak accident, and my loss changed from mild to moderate. Though I appealed this situation to the history department, the head said, “How do we know you won’t get sick again? If you do, the AP class will be far too hard for you.”

I wanted to argue that her decision was discriminatory on multiple levels. My score was off by half a point—one that could have easily been rounded to the minimum score. In the trimester with an 86.5, my accident took precedence over schoolwork because it only happened to two other people at my hospital. Nobody was sure if it could be fixed, or what would become of me. By the end of the school year, another tympanoplasty fixed my eardrum. “Getting sick” in that fashion would not happen again. Briefly, I contemplated a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but realized it would not be worth the fight. The person who made the decision about AP U.S. History was set to be my teacher in my senior year of high school. Little good could come of suing a woman who could continue hindering my college chances for petty reasons. I put my head down, accepted the decision, and proved her wrong by getting the highest score in the regular U.S. History course.

I mention this instance of seeing me as “hearing impaired” as a juxtaposition against “but I don’t see you as disabled”, and why these statements present a unique paradox for disabled individuals. Returning to George Takei, he posted a meme some time back on his beloved Facebook page that shows why this idea can be equally hurtful. The meme features a woman standing in front of her wheelchair reaching for a bottle of liquor. Captions going with the picture vary from “Alcohol makes miracles happen” to “There has been a miracle in the alcohol aisle.” No information was presented about the woman in the meme, and why she needed a wheelchair in the first place. Why should she have to share that information though? Do we really have to know about her life to view her as “disabled”? Must we scan over every single detail of her life to prove whether or not she’s “a fraud”?

Most people in the disabled community–myself included–found this meme very offensive because of its implications about disabled people as a whole. That our problems can be cured with alcohol, or that we fake being disabled until we are “really motivated” to stop being lazy and get what we want. With Takei spreading it around the internet, he inadvertently promoted the idea that he hoped to dispel in “ ‘I Don’t Think of You As Gay’. ‘Well, You Should.’” Takei has since apologized in a beautiful, gracious letter, but it took a plethora of complaints, articles, and letters to show him why sharing this meme made him a perpetuator of “social opprobrium.” Even in an apology, disabled individuals had to prove that disability prejudice was “real”, instead of a means to seek attention.

“But I don’t see you as disabled” and “but you look so normal” are paradoxical, yet equally painful concepts that dominate disabled lives–including my own. Each person is welcome to reconcile this paradox as they please. Living with a disability is so individualized that I cannot give a catch-all method for every single person. Though there are methods I do not recommend, I am not one to cast judgment since I find myself still struggling. At first, what I said was “thank you” to try and pretend that they saw only my work as a student, writer, and musician. It was not until I read George Takei’s post that I realized why the concept of “But I don’t see you as…” actually undermines a lot of my achievements. My history grade was special, but would it have been as important if it didn’t disprove the department head’s prejudice? I share lots of stories on Open Ears, but would they be as significant if I were not hard of hearing?

Like it or not, my hearing loss is part of who I am. It will always play a role in my life, even if its impact shrinks as I age. Saying “But I don’t see you as disabled” is overlooking as much as “But you look so normal!” No parts of my body or character are mutually exclusive. Everything comes together wrapped up in the same flowers and peace signs. At this point, anyway, it’s better to join the two parts and enjoy the summation: a disabled flower child who loves singing and telling stories. Something tells me a summation of parts is more fun than fragments anyway.

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