I’d always imagined that the way to stun a room full of people into total silence would be to do something spectacular, or shocking – making a grand entrance, perhaps. But to receive this reaction merely for having a disability? No, I’d never imagined that would happen, until it did.
Many a friend with a disability had told me stories about being left out in the cold by non-disabled people. While I listened and commiserated, I was confident that I would never be one to feel that way. Yes, there were things I had to get used to, such as people talking about me in my presence, but without involving me in the conversation. Depending on the context, there are several ways I deal with this when it happens – either I butt in and speak for myself, or look bored enough to send across a message of disdain, or just leave things be. But recently, something happened that made me feel as though I’d been rendered invisible.
Imagine my shock when I felt just as left out as my friends described they had, especially because this happened in a familiar setting. Recently, I was part of a work-related meeting, in which I was meeting most of my co-attendees for the first time in my life.
I was excited about this meeting, since my work is rather solitary in nature. I am most often in the company of my laptop, phone, and a disembodied voice over the said phone.
Imagine my dismay when I walked into the room, in the presence of at least fifteen men, and only one of them bothered to greet me. The voices were abuzz around me, but not turned towards me. In an instant all the excitement left me, leaving behind an intense feeling of isolation. It was not just about being acknowledged as a person with a disability, but as a fellow participant in a professional setting. I may not be flying across cities, but in my own capacity I do whatever I can. It was almost as if I wasn’t even there. This same behaviour prevailed for a second day too.
If this was not enough of a jolt, when we broke for coffee, everyone around me walked off towards the coffee counter, and there I was, sitting all on my own with nobody even having asked me if I wanted to accompany them, let alone offering to bring me a cup! It was only later that one of them realised this and got me a cup. Did I say ‘rendered invisible’? I felt like I had been zapped into a bubble from which nobody on the outside world could see me.
I was forced to wonder, what created this barrier of invisibility between the sighted in the room and I? Was it discomfort, a lack of interest, or simply apathy? In my mind I started policing my own body language… was I standing with my hands crossed, looking away, scowling, or hiding? I couldn’t remember doing any of it. If anything, I had met with some of them a day before one-on-one. They were perfectly friendly, and I distinctly remember offering a hand to shake as a classic ice-breaker. Then what else could I have done to make this less awkward and unhappy for myself?
To compound this, during lunch, nobody made any overtures to either sit with me or offer any assistance. Some people I did know personally were playing hosts, and were too busy. Finally, one of them came and asked what I wanted and served me. I could feel others at the table around me, but did anyone make an effort at conversation? Definitely not! Conversation and laughter rang around me, but I was once again relegated to my invisible bubble, all on my own.
This was not the first time that I had faced this in a professional environment. But during previous instances, I had blamed it on one individual’s response. I did not think of this as common behaviour. I used to have a colleague who would always shy away from helping me around our workplace on his own. He always delegated that job, even if he was the only person around who was free at the time. I let this pass as being his problem and not mine, because there were wonderful people too, who were always around to help.
But then, where in a group is the will to take that first step to assist, or even acknowledge me? I have often been deep in conversation with people and suddenly been left alone, talking to myself. I have had someone peep in and tell me there is nobody in the room anymore. To say that this is always mortifying is to put it mildly.
Often in social situations too, I’ve had friends and relatives walk up to me, greet me, pat me on the back and continue talking about me with whoever is accompanying me. What am I? Someone without a voice or my own thoughts or opinions? In times such as these, I want to do the absolutely rude thing and turn my back on them, or just walk away. Unfortunately, I am well aware that this act of walking away can only happen in a familiar setting.
This behaviour is born out of ignorance, and a total lack of interest in knowing otherwise. It is great for the non-disabled to talk about us, but not with us! How then will the gap that has been created between us ever be bridged?
Featured image credit: Alia Sinha