What a Cloak of Invisibility Really Hides

I went shopping with Daughter #2 this weekend. Yes, we braved the post-Christmas mall craziness. I brought my rollator so I could more easily pack water and have a place to sit.

The rollator was a great idea for managing my vertigo. But there was a side effect. I seem to be invisible with my rollator.

That’s not what I expected. I expected to be more visible with my rollator.

I’m not much wider with my rollator. The rollator extends my personal space on the front with the basket, and back rest. (When I’m not sitting, the back rest is on the front.) No, I have not added neon stripes or streamers yet. Nor have I added the blinking LED lights that kid’s shoes have. But my personal space extends a good foot or so in front of me.

That didn’t stop people from plowing into me. I would stop, wait for them to go by, or stop, but they didn’t. They didn’t see me. Daughter and I looked at each other and laughed. What else would we do?

The first time it happened, we were walking in Macy’s on the main corridor. A woman on a mission came out of a side corridor. Her nose was in the air. I’m not sure she saw anyone. She didn’t stop, just kept going. She stumbled into the rollator. I stopped. She backed up. She bumped into it again, then looked down, realized I was there, walked around and continued. No words, just kept going. Like I said, she was on a mission. I do hope she found what she wanted.

The next time, a small boy decided to cut in front of me as I was passing a store in the mall. I guess it was imperative that he make the doorway before I passed him. I’m not sure. He was surprised at my speed. I’m not sure what he expected.

But it’s not just children that do this. Adults do, too. I don’t mind people passing me. I mind when they pass me and cut me off.

I realized what was going on. People are afraid of me. Why? Because I don’t look that old. My legs still work. So what’s the problem? By process of elimination, it must be in my brain. (Do people really think that in the front of their heads? I don’t know. I think it’s in the subconscious. But, I’m mind-reading. I don’t know.)

Here’s what I suspect happens:

If I don’t see you, you don’t exist.

Even if I see you, if I don’t acknowledge you, you don’t exist.

If I don’t acknowledge you, what happened to you, can’t happen to me.

Therefore, I won’t see you. I won’t acknowledge you. I won’t get what you have. I will protect my brain and my body.

Some people fear handicapped people. Some people have some cognitive dissonance about handicapped people. If you ask people, they know they can’t “catch” anyone’s handicaps. But that’s not how they feel. They want to protect themselves. As they should.

Gentle readers, you can’t catch what I have. You can’t catch anyone’s handicap. You are safe! But did that change how you feel when you see a handicapped person? I suspect not.

People fear what they don’t know. Even when the person they don’t know is smiling. I don’t always smile when I walk. I was having a tough day while we were shopping. I don’t know if I smiled the entire time.

But this fear of the unknown is part of what is undiscussable in society. That’s what my cloak of invisibility really hides.

I discuss my handicap. I blog about it! I’m frank with my clients, “I might look drunk when I walk, but I guarantee you, I am not. I have vertigo.” I refuse to let this condition have power over me.

When people fear other people’s handicaps, that fear has power over them. It’s something they can’t easily discuss. And that’s a shame.

Knowledge is power. Discussing what happens to create handicaps allows people to prevent them, maybe. Fear then becomes “Fantasy experienced as reality.” Jerry Weinberg said that to me many years ago.

My cloak of invisibility hides the fear that other people have about me. When I realized that, I felt empowered. What a gift that woman gave me. Let’s discuss the undiscussable.

13 thoughts on “What a Cloak of Invisibility Really Hides

  1. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

    When I burned down my parents house, one of my parents best friends terminated the friendship immediately.
    The only reason we could guess: burning down a house is a disease. He was afraid his children would do the same.
    My reaction (now). Good if people really think that way, I prefer not to have them involved in my personal life…

  2. Rebecca Wirfs-Brock

    The elderly and those who are “different” in any way get similar treatment. I’ve seen this “I don’t see you behavior” happen on the street, too… homeless or strange looking folks aren’t looked at, nor those asking for a handout. That strikes me as particularly odd because when someone asks you for a handout, how can you not hear them? I usually say no, I don’t have spare change (because I don’t carry it)…but ignoring someone who asks strikes me as rude.

    1. johanna Post author

      Rebecca, sometimes I feel afraid of the street people. Some of them here in Boston are pretty aggressive. Pretty cowardly of me, eh?

  3. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

    It’s tempting to call it funny. it’s not it’s tragic.

    About not seeing the elder and homeless. On Facebook a few months ago a new theme got around: uitgestelde koffie. Or not sure how to translate that, something like “Later Coffee”. It means you pay for a coffee for yourself and for a homeless person. At first it looks hie. oh people pay a coffee for a homeless person . Cool. And then I think about it. mm, actually I think the homeless people would rather drink the coffee together and have someone talk to them. Instead of a “I feel good I do something for the homeless coffee”.

    One of the nicest people I know, has done a real great project as part of her study photography: a photo project taking pictures of homeless people. and then spending 1 night every month (for a full year) with them on the streets.
    No room but a view: http://www.truihanoulle.be/category/no-room-but-a-view/

  4. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)

    Trui has also done another great photo project (that I can’t find back now) she started to take pictures of people who clean buildings. Another set of people we usually ignore (I had to admit, I surely did that. ) She started taking pictures and having conversations with them.

  5. Lisa Crispin

    Wow, that is a good wake-up call, I hope I haven’t been doing that to people, whether they’re handicapped or not. I’m certainly guilty of trying to rationalize why “that couldn’t happen to me”, even though intellectually I know better.

    I’m able-bodied and on the tall side, but now that I’m approaching late middle age, I find a lot of younger people in retail businesses seem unable to see me. It’s not a good feeling. Do they think that aging is ‘catching’, I wonder?

  6. Edith

    Johanna,
    I don’t think that what you observed is really about you. I notice this every day on my commute to work (I go by train and have to change a few times). People just don’t observe what happens around them, they are so self-absorbed that they just don’t think about taking care of others. This is not an active decision, I think – they just don’t get that to get along in public spaces, EVERYONE has to optimize his or her own steps to match the other’s.
    In consequence, I find myself going in slalom, as I constantly have to go out of other’s way – they would bump into me otherwise.
    A colleague of mine gave me this advice: “just let them bump” – but then, he is quite big and not easy to bring down :)

    1. johanna Post author

      Hi Edith,

      On reflection, I think you are at least partially right. It’s not all about me :-)

      I’ve done the zig-zag thing, where both people zig the same way and then zag the same way, but that’s when both people are noticing each other and trying to get out of each other’s way.

      Commuting time might be a little different, too. People are on autopilot. They “know” where they are going. They have their routines, their patterns. It’s hard to recognize something different, especially a person :-)

      Thanks for the jiggle.

      1. Edith

        Hi Johanna,
        I’ve noticed that the indifference of others only really bugs me when I can’t easily react to them – if I’m in a hurry, or immobilized by big luggage, or – similar to your case – by illness or other physical conditions.
        When I’m at my best, I evade and that’s it. But if I can’t do the zig-zag and the other person won’t bother, I feel cheeted – like I fulfilled my part of a contract, but didn’t get the return.
        In my philosophy, the stronger persons have an obligation to take care of the weaker – I think it was my driving teacher who said “whoever has the most steel has to take care not to hurt others”. In consequence, I think you have every right to expect consideration from your fellow shoppers, and I don’t question your observations – I just think that the others’ motivation is not founded in fear of handicaps, but in pure self-absorbedness / ruthlessness. They don’t get to the point of thinking you are describing, because their sensorical input and thought processes stop much earlier.

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