“Are you training this service dog for someone else?”
“There’s not that many people here. I don’t get why you’re freaking out.”
“I have [insert diagnosis] too.”
While these comments don’t seem mean, they are all considered microaggressions. Microaggressions are unintentional (or intentional) comments or actions that belittle a person based on their marginalized group, in this case their disability.
The reason that they are so hurtful is that they devalue a person’s experience and worldview. It’s saying that how they perceive the world is distorted or what they have experienced in life doesn’t meet your criteria for what a disability is. Some comments can also negate that mental health is on a continuum. What one person experiences is not the same for someone else.
The hardest part about determining what is and isn’t a microaggression is that the commentator usually has innocent intentions or isn’t aware of the negative connotations of their remarks. It is the hidden message behind it that shows the real problem.
“You don’t look disabled” — this implies that disabilities are only physical. It only counts if you can see it and so invisible disabilities aren’t real.
“Are you training this service dog for someone else?” — Many people are only familiar with guide dogs for the blind, but this comment as well implies that disabilities are only physical. If you can’t see it then it must not exist. There can be a variety of messages. The unintentional message is “You don’t fit my image of disabled, so this service animal must not be for you,” while the intentional one could be “You’re a fraud.” This is also seen often when people with invisible illness use handicap placards. They can walk and they are not old, so many people do not understand why they need to use one, but they fail to see the pain they might be in or the struggles they are experiencing.
“There’s not that many people here. I don’t get why you’re freaking out” — Underlying message is that their reaction to the situation is unreasonable and burdensome.
“I have *insert diagnosis* too” — That everyone’s experience of a diagnosis is the same. It says that there is no differences in severity of a diagnosis. If you are disabled because of a diagnosis, it can’t be that bad because they’re diagnosed with the same thing. A lot of diagnoses are also trivialized by everyday language, “I’m OCD about my house — I hate when it get messy.” This makes light of the difficulties that people with these diagnoses face.
Microaggressions aren’t always verbal — your actions can say a lot as well. The saying is true, “actions speak louder than words.” This can happen by being passed over for a job or promotion even through you may be the most qualified for the position. It may be as obvious as having people act differently around you once they learn about your diagnosis or disability. The message here is that your diagnosis makes you less qualified or that you are different and possibly even to be avoided.
So what can you do to prevent yourself from falling into this hidden trap? First, instead of reacting, attempt to understand. Think before you speak. While trying to appease or find a commonality with someone may seem normal, it can be demeaning, especially for someone with a disability. Ask questions and try to understand their experience and worldview.
Next, don’t use a diagnosis to refer to normal behaviors. People nonchalantly throw around diagnoses such as OCD, dyslexia, and bipolar. By doing this you trivialize the diagnosis and marginalize normal behavior. By calling someone who is mad, “bipolar” you are saying that their behavior is not acceptable and something is wrong with them.
Lastly, accept feedback. Since most microaggressions are unintentional, you may not realize you are falling into the trap. If someone points it out to you, don’t be dismissive — that’s another form of microaggression. It’s ok if it takes time, but what matters is an authentic effort. If it is a habit, it can be hard to break.
Learning more about microaggressions can help you understand what it is you are doing and be more conscientious about your actions. We cannot make microaggressions disappear completely. Unconscious biases affect everyone, but how we react and manage them is what will make a difference in the world.