Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 14, 2020

In 1986, when deaf actress Marlee Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her historical performance in “Children of A Lesser God,” a whispering campaign in Hollywood quickly spread that she didn’t really deserve it. She won it out of pity, so the rumors flew. This was, of course, very hurtful to Marlee and grossly unfair. It was a major example of what is now called a microaggression.

Microaggressions such as this are now widely observed and called out among all social minorities. Two months ago, the New York Times ran a long article about microaggression among female physicians of color. Female Black doctors were regularly referred to as “sweetie” or “honey” or mistaken by patients as nurses or technicians or even orderlies. Even male white doctors would forget their names or titles. If they got a little miffed at such slights, they were pegged as “the angry Black woman” or treated as an outsider. This constant barrage of slights had a devastating effect on some such physicians, making them feel lesser-than or questioning their self-worth.

“Micro,” in microaggression, refers to the size of the insult, verbal or nonverbal, and their routine occurrence, not to the potency of the impact. In regard to people with disabilities, they can be subtle, often unconscious reminders of tropes and stereotypes long hung around the necks of the disabled. Everyone reading this knows about going out to dinner, and your non-disabled companion is blithely asked by the waiter what you would like to order. Or being stopped in an elevator and being told what “a super job” you are doing just getting around in a chair. Or the not-too-subtle experience of seeing a mother in public jerk her child away from you for the egregious sin of looking. What I read into this is: you are potentially dangerous or contagious or unpredictable. You might shout at the kid like a crazy person.

Unfortunately, it’s the microaggressions you might not pick up on immediately that are the most devastating. You roll in an office in your chair for an in-person job interview. You are easily qualified and comport yourself like a reasonable, enthusiastic candidate. You are treated with a little too much deference – “Are you comfortable? Let me move that table….” – but so what? You let that go. But what is the employer really thinking? It could be something like… “Will this person tire easily? Will they get sick a lot? Will they make others in the office uncomfortable or create problems with their need for accommodation or prickly attitude?” Or the most unsettling unstated thought: “Will they sue us if we have to fire them?”

All other things equal, who would you hire if you had those unspoken concerns? The woman in the wheelchair or the woman in tiptop physical shape? Disability advocates would argue that the woman in the chair will give you much more bang for your buck. She will work harder to gain your trust and confidence, and she is a natural and resourceful problem-solver. She has spent her life solving all kinds of problems.

But the boss might not be aware of such advantages or are you nervous about the disabled. She could still sue you for discrimination, but it is hard to prove a bias that is never stated or demonstrated.

This brings us to the main problem with disability microaggression. Did that really happen? Was that gesture or comment really a slight or just the other person trying too hard to be sympathetic? I wonder this every time someone rushes up to my car in the grocery parking lot and asks, “Oh, please, let me help you with that!” Part of me sees it as a kind of overwrought gesture. Another part is miffed: “Hey, lady, how do you think I got here and bought and bagged my groceries?” With a lot of practice, I now just smile and say, “No, thanks. I got this.”

I guess the answer is, it’s your call as to whether to respond or not. If someone calls you their hero, you can read the tone as either patronizing or sincere and respond accordingly. As for something more important, like a job interview, there are probably ways to approach it that maximize your chances. I’ve never been in that situation, so I don’t know any surefire techniques. Except for one very broad notion: lead with your personality – your wit, your knowledge, your positive outlook – and not with your disability. Make that an afterthought for all involved.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.