How The COVID Pandemic Let Me Pass For Able-Bodied

“In your lifetime, science will make it possible for people in wheelchairs to be able to walk, since that’s what they all dream about.”

Wait, what did he say? I can’t possibly have heard that right. My mind was full of white noise, running on autopilot as I rushed to check if I was muted in the Zoom meeting and frantically covered the camera with the pad of my finger. I started to count slowly backward from 20. The white noise in my head began to dissipate, replaced with the sting of knowing that he really did say that, and he really did hold the incorrect belief that all wheelchair users want to walk, and that we don’t have dreams or goals that aren’t in the scope of our disabilities.

That realization sent shockwaves down my entire being. My body emitted a foreign noise, part laugh, part groan and part sob. My fingers shook as I heard my teacher announce that he’d see us all on Thursday. I heard a chorus of chimes as my classmates left Zoom.

As a disability activist since age 6, I’ve gotten very accustomed to having awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes traumatizing conversations with people in positions of power, whether they were teachers, administrators or even on the board of education. For a lot of my life, I had no choice.

If you use a wheelchair like I do (or have any other type of visible disability), you’ll know the pain that is entering a classroom and feeling everyone stare at you ― 30 sets of eyes boring into your back as you sit down and pull out a pen on the first day of school. By November of each year, the stares have died down, and I can pull up to my desk without feeling like everyone is watching me.

Until, of course, your teacher says something ableist and you have to become the disability representative and correct them in front of the class. Then, the eyes swivel away from the presentation on Punnett squares and focus on me, as I have to give the same tired spiel about how that comment was offensive to me as a disabled person and could they please not say that?

Most teachers just nod curtly and continue with the lesson ― although I had one teacher who never got the hint and kept asking “Why?” ― but once again, I feel the now-familiar burning of those 30 stares, and I curse myself because I thought we were past this part.

So I’m sure you can imagine my euphoria when school was moved online, and I didn’t have to enter my classroom to stares. I didn’t have to give a spiel.

In fact, for the first time, I was waking up excited to attend school, because I didn’t have to jump through all the hoops that normally plagued my days in academia ― like tables that weren’t the right height for my wheelchair, or getting stuck in the elevator since they never performed maintenance on it (and those are just the physical barriers I faced). 

For me, and for a lot of other disabled people, the pandemic only amplified my knowledge that the pre-coronavirus world wasn’t built for us. Now that we were all stuck in our homes, I got to be just another video game nerd connecting with potential friends over Zoom, obsessing over the most recent ”Animal Crossing” update, without worrying about how my disability looked to others or how I was going to get up the stairs at a friend’s house.

The best part was that, on our virtual platform, no one knew right off the bat that I was disabled. It was up to me to tell them. 

That revelation was glorious. Finally, I’ll have a chance to make some real friends, without all of this disability stuff getting in the way, I told myself as I typed rapid-fire quips to my group of nerd friends. They all sent back “laugh out loud” emojis and I felt at peace ― joyful, even. See, I’m funny!

I felt joyful until that night, as I tossed and turned in bed, my mind holding me hostage. You clearly can’t be a REAL disability activist if you are getting this much joy from passing as non-disabled, my demons told me. 

But the joy that I felt during the day was that of being able to integrate into a non-disabled world, and feel the privileges the people there experience on a daily basis. Passing, for me, meant I didn’t have to worry about the judgment of others. They didn’t know I was disabled; I was just me, without having to face the barriers, both physical and societal, of living in a world built for non-disabled people.

For a few months, I carried on like that, telling myself it was OK that I felt this joy because I hadn’t had to put on my official “activist” hat. That is, until that fateful morning in biology class, when my teacher declared that “all disabled people want to be able to walk,” and I couldn’t sit idly by.

I was furious that my teacher forced me out of my joy, I was furious at the world that nothing had changed during the pandemic ― ableism still was running rampant ― and I was furious at myself for thinking the problem had magically gone away, just because I pretended that it didn’t affect me.

I decided that yes, I was going to educate my teacher. I composed my email, making sure the fury that came through in the message was at a manageable level. Fury, anger and passion can be powerful tools if you use them to advance your point, and not to hurt it ― because no one likes to be screamed at. 

The conversation went as well as it could have. My teacher understood all my points, and we ended up having a productive conversation ― basically, I got everything an advocate could want.

As those of us in the U.S. begin to return to in-person activities, and schools move offline, my days of “passing” may be numbered. And that’s OK with me, because even though I got to experience the thrills of being able to pass, I had to compromise a part of myself, and that just wasn’t worth it. I am all that I am, unapologetically, and I’m done trying to “pass” or hide parts of my identity to make myself more palatable to the world.

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