While shopping in my local supermarket with my husband this weekend I needed to use the toilet. Making my way to the disabled toilet, I took a moment to smile at the sign they have on the door “Not All Disabilities Are Visible”. I love that places are starting to use these signs to recognise invisible disabilities. However, despite this glaringly obvious sign just a few feet away someone still managed to make me uncomfortable about using the disabled toilet.
I approached the disabled toilet and tried the door before realising it was engaged. A woman nearby told me her mum was in there. I politely responded with “okay”. She couldn’t help but follow it up with “there’s other toilets there you know” pointing towards the non-disabled toilets. I had my back to her, so I cast my eyes to the heavens and prayed for patience that doesn’t come easily to a pregnant woman, in pain, who is desperate for the loo. I replied, “I know, I need the disabled one though” and went back to waiting. The woman realised she’d screwed up and proceeded to try and make small talk about vegetables. I half smiled, turned my back on her and continued to wait.
This woman wasn’t trying to be helpful, she was making a point. She had decided I didn’t look disabled so she felt the need to point out I should use another toilet. She felt it was appropriate to make me feel uncomfortable despite the sign on the door that stated, “not every disability is visible”. I don’t understand why anyone thinks that behaviour is appropriate. It isn’t appropriate, but it happens all the time. For another similar experience I had on a night out see my blog post “Are you even disabled?”.
In case it wasn’t obvious, it is never okay to challenge someone on their use of a disabled facility. Someone’s disabled status is absolutely none of your business! Here’s five things you should remember when someone doesn’t “look disabled “and five things I wish I’d said to that woman who challenged me.
How someone looks isn’t a reflection of how they feel
It seems like common sense that how someone looks has nothing to do with how they may be feeling inside. Yet when you challenge someone based on their appearance you are claiming how they look reflects how they feel. It seems ridiculous to say out loud doesn’t it? You cannot tell just from looking at someone if they are disabled or not. There are so many invisible disabilities, or disabilities you may not notice at first glance. People living with these disabilities deserve to go about their lives without harassment or fear of harassment.
What should a disability look like? What should a chronic illness look like? If you think you need to look a certain way to use disabled facilities you are feeding in to a harmful and outdated stereotype of disabled people. Not every disabled person needs mobility aids, plenty of disabled people do not use a wheelchair or walking stick. I have both a wheelchair and walking sticks, and I use them when needed. More often than not I use just my stick but sometimes I use nothing. On the day that woman pointed me to use another toilet I had no wheelchair or walking stick. However, I still needed the disabled toilet. On the outside I look like any other 30 year told woman, but inside I suffer with chronic pain and require the use of disabled facilities to make my life a bit easier.
Next time you see someone using the disabled toilet or a disabled parking space don’t judge them if they “look fine”. Challenging people who wrongly use disabled facilities won’t change the fact they don’t care about inconveniencing disabled people. However, people legitimately using them do not have a certain appearance and it is not your place to judge. Challenging people with invisible disabilities achieves nothing but humiliating someone for doing nothing wrong and making them anxious about using facilities they need in future.
You don’t see someone’s worst days
You never know what kind of day someone is having, and it doesn’t take much to turn someone’s day from good to bad. Imagine you’ve spent all week in bed with a raging flare up and it’s left you absolutely drained. You finally feel well enough to leave the house and get some desperately needed shopping. When you arrive at the shops you park in the disabled spot, psych yourself up to get the shopping done and hope the pain and fatigue don’t cut your visit short. You get out of the car only to be confronted by someone who thinks it’s their place to question your legitimate use of a facility that makes life just a tiny bit easier.
The truth us we don’t see how someone is on their worst days; you only see them on a day when they’re well enough to leave the house. You don’t know what it took for someone to get up and get out that day, so don’t judge.
Someone’s medical history is none of your business
Someone’s medical Regardless of whether someone appears disabled or not, and regardless of whether they are disabled or not, someone’s medical history is not your concern.
We have no right to know someone’s medical information or their disability status. It is none of our business why someone is using a disabled facility. The only person who should be asking that person medical questions is their doctor. When you question someone’s use of a disabled facility you are essentially asking them “are you disabled, and if so, why are you disabled?”. Most people wouldn’t ask someone those questions, and yet according to a study by Crohns and Colitis UK 9 out of 10 people think it’s helping society to challenging people who “don’t look disabled”.
Someone’s disability status is not anyone else’s business. It most definitely doesn’t help society to challenge people with invisible disabilities. In fact, it does a great deal of harm and doesn’t aid disabled rights in any way.
Disability doesn’t mean one thing
I know the symbol for disability is a wheelchair, but not everyone with a disability uses a wheelchair. A study in America found that out of 26 million American’s with a disability, only 7 million used any kind of mobility aid.
Hidden disabilities aren’t all the same. There are invisible disabilities linked to mobility and chronic pain such as Rheumatoid Arthritis. Other invisible disabilities are auditory or visual. Here’s a list of just some of the invisible illnesses and disabilities that immediately spring to my mind. Autism, Crohns, Colitis, mental illness, Lupus, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Trigeminal Neuralgia, Sjogren’s Syndrome, brain injuries and Fibromyalgia. I could go on and on.
When you look at that list it becomes clear that there is no way any of us can decide if someone is disabled just by looking at them. Therefore, it is never appropriate to challenge or question someone for using a disabled facility.
Kindness costs nothing
It takes a few seconds to potentially ruin someone’s day. By challenging someone with an invisible disability on their use of a disabled facility it could very well ruin their entire day. It is humiliating to be put in a position where you feel you must explain yourself to a stranger.
The sign on the disabled toilet door at my local supermarket read “not all disabilities are visible”. We shouldn’t need a sign to point that out to us in 2019. We should be more tolerant and less judgemental, especially when we have no idea what someone is going through. Next time you see someone using a disabled toilet or parking in a disabled spot, don’t stare or judge. Don’t even think it in your head. Isn’t it about time we changed our attitudes to invisible disability and made the world more inclusive for everyone? Judgement doesn’t help anyone, and it certainly doesn’t help the fight for disabled rights. If you want to help, be kind and as my mum says, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.