January 2, 2018

Do You Feel Invisible Because of a Disability?

The lead sentence in the New York Times article caught my eye: "Nancy Root remembers when she vanished." Reporter Frank Bruni writes about the "disappearance" of an 82 year old woman who lives in a Phoenix suburb. Even though her mental and verbal skills are just fine, because she is confined to a wheelchair most of the time she has become "invisible" to many people.

Getting someone to help her takes much longer than it did when she simply strolled into a store. When a clerk finally comes, offers of help are directed to the person pushing her wheelchair, not to Nancy. In doctors' offices, receptionists talk to whomever brought her to her appointment, often referring to Nancy in the third person, as if she isn't even there. The same invisibility happens at movie theaters, restaurants, and on airplanes. 

The reporter found a disturbing pattern: there is often an assumption that someone with a physical limitation is also mentally limited, too. There is a general belief that someone above a certain age does not deserve full attention. The story ends with the disturbing conclusion that Nancy is learning to make peace with such neglect. She has decided not to spend her time angry or bitter at this type of treatment.

I must say that this story has opened my eyes to something that has probably been right in front of me. I just didn't see it. I don't think I treat someone in a wheel chair as detailed in the report. In fact, how I do respond may be just as bad. I may go overboard and be too deferential and treat him or her as if they are fragile or needing special help.

The folks I know who have a wheelchair or use a cane expect the opposite. They want no special privileges or treatment. They don't want their physical limitations to affect how I interact with them. After all, we all have limits of some kind.

As our country ages, more of our peers will find themselves needing help getting around. Wheelchairs, electric scooters, canes, or walkers will become an even more common sight. That group of folks with "limitations" will likely include us. Do we want to be treated, or ignored, like Nancy is? Of course not.

Here's my question for you: because of any physical limitations that require assistance do you ever feel invisible? Do you find yourself marginalized because you are a certain age? Do sales clerks wait on you last?  Do waiters talk with a younger companion instead of you?

Or, have you found this isn't the case? You are older than many people in a store or supermarket, movie theater or restaurant, but that has not affected how you are treated. Do you do or say anything differently to make sure you get the attention you deserve?

The newspaper article quotes one of Nancy's friends, who is infirm and does feel discriminated against. She takes a more direct approach: she tells those people "to go to hell."

Hopefully, we can find another way to interact. But, Mr. Bruni has shone a light on a subject that is an important one: are senior citizens, especially those who are limited in some way, invisible to others?

Your experiences and reactions are welcomed.


  1. Wow, this story could just as easily have been written about me. Not because I am in a wheelchair but because I am deaf. People ignore me in stores, talk to my wife as if I were not even in the room. When there is more than one hearing person in our I become invisible. This is the story of my life.

    It is not because I am 70+, although there are times now that I get it double down because of that. I don't say "go to hell" often but it is blurted out on occasion. Yeah, "deaf and dumb" still is the feeling among many. That does put me off but sometimes it is just easier playing that role, especially when someone wants something from me but is unwilling to do something to help our communications.

    The kicker for my wife is that when we are in restaurants she always gets the bill. She tells the waiters in no uncertain terms "GIVE THE BILL TO MY HUSBAND".

    I alway go out of my way to say hi to everyone I see in a wheelchair or who is autistic and such...

    1. I was hoping you'd leave a comment on this particular post, R.J. Long time readers remember the post about you and the limits society placed on you because of your loss of hearing (3/27/13).

      Kudos to your wife for her reaction in restaurants!

  2. I have noticed that people in hospital beds are often talked over instead of to.
    Of course, when mom used her own "goto hell" phrase, she was put in the "mean and nasty lady" category. When it was my dad they said he was working hard to be independent again.....
    Mom has three things : elderly, female and wheel chair bound.
    In my area many elderly do not have rides and walk/self-wheel to the doctors. I have learned to stop, put my convertible top down, and offer a ride. Eyes get wide and "yes please" is the reward for both of us. Not taken up every time---everyone is in their own "space".

    1. There does seem to be a different reaction to females and males who are "limited" in some way. Importantly, those reactions are stereotypes. Either sex can be grumpy or positive, but I think you are right, Janette: men and women are judged differently in these situations.

      The "own space" phrase reminds me of a staple of some comedy routines: the boy scout trying to help the older woman cross the street. She doesn't want his help but he ends up virtually dragging her through the crosswalk even though she was waiting at a bus stop. The laughter this provides is probably from embarrassment at our own misconceptions.

  3. So far so good, although I do notice a difference in how I'm greeted in a store when my hair is its natural chrome color vs dyed. A close friend of mine has MS and often uses a walker/wheelchair in public. I've noticed that staff address me rather than her when we're together. It happened recently at a dinner theatre where there was a seating mix up. I had to ask the staff to address my friend as the booking was in her name. Another friend's son is physically disabled with muscular dystrophy. They recently attended a pro-sporting event at a new multimillion $$ complex where the wheelchair seating was less than adequate. The facility management will be hearing from her son.

    1. I am glad you brought up the seating/accessibility issue. Just this morning Betty brought up the problems she faces just because she is short (barely 5 feet). Often counters in stores are too high for her to even reach the credit card machine to sign the screen, much less verify what she is agreeing to.

      She has had the experience many times where other folks at are a counter waiting for service; she gets waited on last even if others joined the line after her. She is just too short to be taken seriously.

  4. I've been reading your blog for the last year or so, but didn't have much to add to the other great comments until I felt the need to do so today. :)

    I need a wheelchair much of the time. It isn't that I can't walk...it's that I fall when I do. :)

    People are odd about wheelchairs. Random strangers will come up to me, pat me on the head and tell me that they will pray for me. I know they mean well, but it is pretty infantilizing and invasive.

    I also seem to be a magnet for people on ECV's who feel the need to confess to me how awful they used to be to other people who used mobility devices and how they've changed since it happened to them. I put that down to them really not having a lot of empathy...the kind of people who don't understand much of anything until it happens to them personally.

    The invisibility is pretty common. My spouse and I will often say as we head out for the day that we are going to rob a bank, as no one will ever see us since we are invisible with the wheelchair. :)

    I have two types of crip personalities. :) The first is the super crip (always positive, pleasant and nice) and I get lots of comments like "I could never do what you do" and "you are so strong."

    I always want to respond that I can't do it either, but I don't have a choice. :)

    And then there is me, the crabby crip. :) That's on those days when I am fed up with all kinds of demands on me to accept assistance that I don't want or need. I then bark at others when they try to help and am generally just bad tempered about any offers of assistance.

    I try not to be both at the same time. :)

    As a note...I use the word "crip" to refer to myself, not to other people. I have a rather sarcastic sense of humor and that word appeals to me because of that. :) I also refer to the handicapped seating, especially in arenas as the "crip corrals."

    1. Your comment is both eye-opening and funny..it made me smile. Your attitude and frankness about this issue may be shockingly to some, but it is really the crux of the issue I was attempting to write about, knowing that my knowledge is certainly not first-hand. Walking in someone else's shoes (pardon the pun) is not easy to do and can lead to unintended consequences.

    2. I think a lot of the invisibility has to do with being taught as children not to stare at anyone who is at all different. That translates into not looking and eventually not noticing people in wheelchairs.

      It also doesn't help that when I am in a wheelchair, my head is no longer over my feet...my feet are way out in front of me. I think people move around in crowds by assuming that the head is over the feet and then when you add a wheelchair to the mix, you end up with people tripping over it.

      And just as a reminder...wheelchairs can't stop on a dime (that darned physics about an object in motion remaining in motion stuff) :) Cutting too close in front of a wheelchair is likely to end badly for the person doing the cutting. My feet are protected by my foot rests and the rest of my body is protected by the frame of my chair. Way too many people end up with badly bruised ankles from not remembering that wheelchairs don't have brakes and don't stop quickly. :)

  5. I wasn't aware of this behavior, personally. I've used crutches at times, usually after car accidents, (don't ask), but I was much younger then. I'm guessing this is something more age related than disability related. I can relate to Betty with the 'short' issue but I usually get snarky with rude people. Unfortunately, due to the downhill slide in politics this past year, more people feel free to verbally abuse and it's despicable. I hope we can get back to civility this year.

    1. You are probably right. I am guessing it is a combination of age and disability that creates the invisibility or well-meaning, but misguided reaction.

      Betty couldn't be snarky if she tried, though she can "cut me down to size" when I need it.

  6. It is interesting to see the range of "visibility" at my Dad's living facility. Some people seemingly fade into the background, while others make a statement. Several residents have adorned their walkers and wheelchairs with flowers, horns, flags, racing flames, pinwheels, etc . You certainly can't ignore them and people do not. I see them engaged in conversation frequently. They never wait for someone else to start the conversation. They do it. Confidently.

    I think we may be too quick to think this issue is limited to those with physical limitations or those using assistive devices. Look around the next time you are in a restaurant or any public gathering. There are usually a lot of people (often alone) that seem to blend into the background.

    I really think it is up to each individual to let the world know that you are "still in the game." As loudly and as flamboyantly as you need to!

    Rick in Oregon

    1. Sometimes, someone wants to blend in and be left to their own thoughts. But, in many cases that is not what is happening. Nancy, the woman in the story, had all her mental and emotional facilities and she was in public settings where she wanted to interact. But, the wheelchair put her in a category that allowed her to be dismissed.

      In cases like that, I think there needs to be much more awareness on the part of those that interact with her. It is not her "job" to shout or call attention to herself. It is the responsibility of others to not make assumptions about her ability to handle a situation by herself.

      I agree with your point about speaking up for ourselves and demanding respect, but, I believe it is also the requirement of all of us to not force those with limitations to be put in that position.

    2. We rely on others to do the right thing, or we can help them learn the right thing to do. Sometimes people need to learn. We can wish that others had more awareness... but sometimes they don't. I am ultimately only in control of ME and my thoughts and attitudes... not others. But I can educate others, and that is what I am suggesting.

      Seeing someone in a wheelchair can trigger a sense of fear in some people.. "there but for the grace of God go I...." they get uncomfortable and awkward and distance themselves out of fear. They need to get over their fears, but the person in the wheelchair needs to help, by making sure that everyone knows they are just like anyone else, still fully engaged in life. If they don't, they will be subject to the fears and prejudice of the people they are interacting with.

      I had a friend in college who was deaf. When she went to a social gathering with new people she did not know she wore a tag that said this:

      I am deaf.
      I am not stupid
      Look at me when you speak..
      And I will understand you.

      She was one of my all time heroic friends.

      Rick in Oregon

  7. Such an interesting post! It called to mind two different memories. When I was growing up, my dad worked with a man in a wheelchair. He had lost a leg and become paralyzed from an injury in WWII. Our family socialized with his family too. Being around someone in a wheelchair during my childhood normalized it in a way. He was very matter of fact about everything and answered all my questions, questions I never would have asked as an adult. He was funny and I always enjoyed being around him.

    About finding that balance between being helpful and being intrusive--I was driving down the street one day and saw a woman in a wheelchair who looked like she was having trouble getting into a van. I didn't see anyone else around. Would stopping be intrusive? I wasn't sure. I circled the block and she was still there, so I pulled over and asked her if she needed help. She said the ramp into her van was stuck. She told me what to do and I got it fully extended for her with no trouble (for someone who wasn't in a wheelchair!). As she started up the ramp I asked her if she needed further assistance. She said no and thanked me. I got back in my car and that was that. We both handled it in a direct way without a lot of extra stuff.

    I think your post will make all of us think more carefully about how we interact with someone who has a physical disability, especially someone in a wheelchair because they are easy to overlook--literally! Thanks for calling this to our attention.

    1. What a perfect story to make my point. Helping without being overly intrusive takes some sensitivity to the situation and taking a bit of a risk. It is quite possible that you could have offered her help and she would have told you to mind your own business. Even so, can we really turn our back on someone who may need our help?
      That is the risk we must take, a risk that I suggest is worth it.

  8. I have always been fairly athletic. So I hadn’t thought much about how people in wheelchairs were treated or the challenges they faced. A couple of years ago when I ended up on crutches for four months with a broken foot, I had the opportunity to personally experience mobility issues. I noticed that there are too few disabled parking places and that they are often quite a long way from the door. I also used a scooter for part of that time. I noticed that some people were really helpful ( holding doors open; supporting my arm when my crutches slipped on the ice in the parking lot), whereas other people saw me as an obstruction that was holding them up as they rushed to their destination. For me, a hard part was recognizing that I held biases about mobility aids that didn’t fit with my sense of identity as a strong independent person. I was ashamed of myself for my own prejudices, and learned something through that experience.

    By the way, I am the same height as Betty, and am frustrated that everything is manufactured at a standard height — which is too high for short people and children. In this day and age, there is no reason that we don’t have more options, not just for short people but for everyone that has a body that is in some way not average.


    1. Thanks for sharing your insight. Sometimes the best teacher is to walk a mile in someone else's shoes for awhile.

      Betty cannot reach half the cabinets in our kitchen without a step stool, or the upper shelves in supermarkets so I am the designated "tall" person to get whatever she needs. We go food shopping together, so I am responsible for the upper level stuff while she handles anything nearer the floor. It works for us, but nearly every time we are at the store I grab a can or package for a shorter person who just can't manage.

  9. I have had the kinds of invisibility experiences that are familiar to women who were pioneers in predominantly male workplaces -- for example, an idea not being "heard" until a male voice says it. Recently, I've become the only woman member of a volunteer commission in my town, and I feel as though I've fallen into a thirty-year time hole. I'm not sure I have the energy to fight these battles all over again.
    But the kind of invisibility you are talking about here has been a lifelong experience for my physically disabled sister. Her experiences with invisibility have ranged from the annoying (like the time she took her teenage daughter out to lunch and the server asked the teenager what her mother wanted to eat) to the horrific (the health care workers who tried to coerce her into a tubal ligation while she was giving birth because they assumed she was too stupid to raise children). For a while, when her kids were in school, she used her experiences as the basis of sensitivity training for teachers on how to treat disabled children in their classrooms.

    1. The first part of your comment is important for the discussion because it helps broaden the type of invisibility we are discussing. Thank you.

      Per the part about your sister, I am so encouraged to read about how she used her experiences to help change some attitudes with sensitivity training. The two cases you cited are perfect examples of what "limited" folks have to endure. We must to do.

  10. I have to say that I have an upcoming post on Chronic and invisible pain (which I'm fairly sure Betty can relate to) that probably goes along with this some what. Meanwhile...I am not in a wheelchair, but I occasionally need my cane on the bad days, have a rolling walker with a chair because cannot stand in one place and no longer take steps except one or two here and there. While I have not reached the invisible zone, I am in the middle of the incomprehension/"really?" zone, for lack of a better phrase. As in "no I cannot walk up twenty stone steps, you need to unlock the access entrance if you want me to help and leadthe prayer group". Or "No, it isn't really good for me to walk another mile, what strengthens you will hurt me". I do expect that at sometime i will reach that other level, but for right now I'm trying to deal with this one.

    1. I had no idea, Barbara, of the battles you are fighting. I read your posts and just think about someone who has overcome major financial hurdles, is creative, and managed a long distance move, but not someone with these restrictions.

      I will be anxious to read what you have written. Betty is not limited yet to the degree you are, but her constant companion is pain. She is facing another foot operation sometime in the near future to relieve some of her daily problems.

      I like your incomprehension description. If someone is restricted but it isn't immediately obvious, the reaction you receive is probably very common and uninformed.

  11. First of all, I disagree with the guy who said it our job/responsibility to teach people how to react to a disabled person. No, I do not want to teach the world how to respond to another human being, me, who cannot do what others can do.

    I use an electric scooter and have people treat me in three different ways. 1) am invisible and do not need the respect of others. I asked for help from a clerk in WM. As I drove along and stopped at the rack or shelf, the employee had disappeared. I was trying to figure out what happened for about two minutes. Finally, I asked,
    "Where are you?" the employee answered, right here...from directly behind me. I asked her to move up in front where I could talk to her. She said, "I can hear you just fine from here." Yes, I did teach her and was furious. I asked her if someone can walk, does she stand behind them while helping them. She said she did not. I had to go through the questions and point out I just could not walk all over the store and needed help like others, that I was not stupid or incapable of thinking like others since I could not walk like others. She still had an attitude but did say she did not realize. Why should I teach people common manners and have to get upset, ruining my day?

    2) Some people want me to go to the front of the line and embarrass me with their overly solicitous attitude, causing other to look as I become the "Project."

    3) People sometimes accuse me of being a fake. Just because I managed to walk to the door of a store does not mean I can walk forever in a store. I do need the electric cart whether they think I do or not. I really hate to defend myself daily. These people demand to know what is wrong with me. I don't have to tell them! I actually do not mind telling anyone, but I will not tell when anyone wants me to recite my problem so they can judge for themselves.

    I have fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, last vertebra sits on bone, herniated discs, collapsed vertebrae, and something I cannot spell...lol...spondelythesis--where the vertebrae do not fit together and one has slipped over the one below, stenosis, and bone spurs.

    I was in the ER Wednesday and was denied a wheelchair, humiliated and harassed for not wanting to walk a long distance with pain, flu, and fever.

    People are shocked to hear I have two BAs and MA. I cannot sit or stand long enough to work. I am lying flat of my back in bed to type. Oh, when I won the County Senior Spelling Bee was the first time I became visible to many.

    Sorry I wrote so much.

    1. You wrote what you felt and responded to some wounds and hurts that this post stimulated. Thank you for taking the time and being so open about the hassles you face on a daily basis. Of course, I hope someone reading your comment has his or her eyes open a bit about this subject.

    2. My first sentence was misleading. I only use an electric cart in stores. I wish I had one to go to farmer's market and other activities I enjoy. I can barely walk. Every step is painful to my back. I could honestly write a book about my experiences. Some doctors are rude about my condition.