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The Price of Passing

cartoon of female asking Are you Okay. Cartoon figure replies, I'm fine, meanwhile a black cloud is pushing them with the words sad, pain, help, depression, tired, written in the dark cloud that follows the repsondent
I'm fine

Passing is projecting an image of yourself that is incongruent with your true self to avoid discrimination. Depending on the situation people pass.

Social media is a fine example of passing. We all curate our social media feeds. We chose what we show the world. Word to the wise, no one has a perfect life. I was at a wedding years ago. The bride and groom were from LA. All their friends worked on-screen. They all looked fairly perfect, even before their pictures were filtered. The groom’s brother let me know they all had surgery. Weird. Discrimination based on looks.

Liposuction, dental veneers, fat injections, botox, hair extensions, bust augmentation, fat freezing, dermabrasion, rhinoplasty, eyelid lifts, tummy tucks are common surgeries that on-screen stars have to perfect their brand. There is even a six-pack surgery. The next time you are comparing your body to Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lopez remember, some of it is diet, some is working out, and a lot of it is surgically enhanced. They are passing as far more beautiful than they are naturally.

I’m sure there are plenty of evenings when Kim Kardashian whips off her girdle to watch TV in sweatpants. Girdle? Waist trainers, Skyms and Spanx are girdles. Girdles, even the ‘cute’ ones, are uncomfortable. Jackie Kennedy Onassis said, “The only people who model girdles are people who don’t need girdles”. Passing, like wearing a girdle, is uncomfortable and pricey.

At the heart of the gay rights movement was the right to live authentically. To not feel the need to pass in order to gain equal access to work, housing, and services. In 2001, Albertan, new teachers who identified as 2SPGLBTQ+, were advised to pass until they were hired full-time. Today, in the trades, gay men and feminine lesbians might pass to avoid discrimination, teasing, and physical harm on job sites. Disclosure, aka coming out, is the individual’s right. Outing someone is to take away their right.

This is the same with people with disabilities. Like members of the 2SPGLBTQ+ community, they face restrictive stereotypes when outed. People treat you according to the stereotypes they hold about people with your type of disabilities, sexual preferences, gender identity, cultural background, family, socio-economic and educational background. There are different levels of privilege granted to people.

Justin Dart Jr. and Judith Heumann, two of the leaders in the American Disability Rights Movements, were granted more privileges than others. For instance, Johnnie Lacy was a Black female disability advocate who got very little press. Dart and Heumann were white, which made them more appealing to newspaper and magazine photography editors.

Heumann’s father ran a deli in New York. Through that connection she was offered free legal assistance to fight the New York School Department for employment discrimination based on her disability. In the 70’s when Heumann and Dart were qualifying as teachers, applicants were required to walk independently. As wheelchair users, this was an impossible requirement that had no bearing on their ability to teach.

Dart’s family were monstrously rich. HIs grandparents created Walgreens. The Darts owned plastics manufacturing plants. Yes, he financially cut himself from the family in the late 60’s and was no longer a member of the furs and pearls club. His family’s connections to politicians, specifically Ronald Reagan, opened many doors that may have otherwise been closed.

Both Heumann and Dart used their political influence and privilege to further Disability Rights. There are times when they had to be very creative in dealing with inaccessibility, and body limitations, including pain. They had to portray themselves as being more able-bodied than they were. They passed. They were willing to sacrifice parts of themselves for something bigger than themselves.

Disabled people pass as able-bodied regularly. Even wheelchair users pass, pretending that inaccessibility, pain, and inconvenience is okay. Neurodiverse kids and adults hide their natural tendencies and act out scripted responses to social situations. People with chronic illnesses mask pain. Pushing past fatigue in order not to appear weak is commonplace. Smiling and nodding in conversations though half is unheard or incomprehensible is a trick we learn early on.

Some people risk of falling by restricting mobility aid usage to their homes only. Others shun aids all together lest they look different or say they are ‘not that disabled’. Meanwhile, clinging to walls while navigating their way room to room. Shower chairs are hidden before company comes over. I slid down the stairs on my butt for years before admitting that my house was inaccessible. People with disabilities are creative problem solvers because we do it everyday.

It all comes at a cost. The disability tax is the price we pay for passing. We do it to avoid being treated as weak, helpless, dull minded, or any of the negative terms associated with the word disabled. Most people with a chronic illness, hearing loss, and learning disability deny having a disability. Having a disability is portrayed as a bad thing. The thing that diminishes your value, worth, and ability. Different, less than, and undesirable according to society.

Having a disability restricts the privilege we are granted. For instance, Dart and Heumann had more privileges than Johnnie Lacy. Cultural group admittance and participation is limited for people with disabilities. Lacy “experienced exclusion from the Black community due to her disability and from the disability community due to her race”. Identity is layered.

2SPGLBTQ+ people with disabilities often find themselves on the outside looking in. Apparently ‘super gays’ can dance all night on speakers, ride in parades, look fabulous, and compete in contests. Canadian, queer, podcaster Andrew Gurza wrote,

"Of course, when people see a disabled person needing help, we are of course met with the classics: the stares of pity, the “oh man, it sucks you can’t do that” speech and who could forget the overbearing help speech, “Dude, this is no problem whatsoever” (okay, you have said that 5 times, maybe it is weirder for you than you anticipated). … If someone that I like sees that I need help, they’ll see me as less independent, which will translate into them seeing me as less sexy, which will preclude them from looking at me as any kind of partner at all …”

Not fitting into the ideal mold due to disability limits opportunities and negatively impacts self-esteem. Remaining positive and optimistic when your own cultural group rejects you is difficult. Even within the disability community, privilege is unevenly distributed.

As the degree of difficulty in passing increases the number of observed rights and privileges decreases. As Gurza points out the more pervasive and visible the disability the less privilege (acceptance) granted. Gurza is the leading queer disability sexual expert. His podcast, Disability After Dark, remains dominant. Gurza, like Heumann, Dart, and Lacy, channels his frustration into activism.

Passing affects more than dating. Work, volunteering, recreation, education, friendships, housing, and every aspect of life is impacted. Look at your own life. How many of your friends have a disability? How apparent is their level of disability? What emotional responses might you have when conversing with someone with a communication disability? People tend to befriend people like themselves. People who have similar socio-economic standing, cultural background, opportunities, age, and life experiences congregate together. That’s life.

That is why it is important for the Andrew Gurza's of the world to continue to break down barriers that separate people with disabilities from society. The combined cost of passing and discrimination are too high. It is difficult enough to live in a world not made for you. Adding a need to pass, while creatively solving for inaccessible spaces and situations on the fly, is too much to ask of anyone. Yet that is what is demanded of people living with disabilities. We demand it of ourselves and feel the constant pressure to “be as normal as possible”.

Take off your girdle. Learn to embrace yourself, warts and all. When you feel the need to pass to be taken legitimately, ask that the space and situation adjust itself to accommodate you. That is the greatest risk of all with the greatest reward.

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