Sometimes, an act of aggression toward disabled people is overt, like firing them from a job or not providing an accessible entrance to a bathroom or building. Other times, it’s subtler — an offhand comment that they’re “so inspiring,” or a cashier assuming they can’t communicate with them. These “microaggressions,” as they’ve come to be known, can still cause pain and reflect ableist attitudes. And people with disabilities can get pretty tired of hearing them.
What Are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are subtle comments or behaviors that convey a negative belief about someone based on their membership in a particular group (like the disability community), Kristin J. Conover, Ph.D., psychologist and assistant professor of clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology, told The Mighty. These comments and behaviors can be well-intentioned — which makes it harder to know how to react or cope with them, Conover said.
“Microaggressions are everyday reminders of common oppressive and damaging stereotypes that can become internalized by marginalized groups,” Conover said. “In this way, the impact of microaggressions on mental health has been described as ‘death by a thousand cuts.'”
Conover said her research has found four primary categories of microaggressions that people with disabilities hear most often: helplessness, minimization, denial of personhood and otherization. We asked our Mighty disability community to share some microaggressions they have experienced and organized their examples into the category they each represent:
Helplessness refers to treating people with disabilities as if they are incapable, useless, broken and unable to do any task without help. Nondisabled people may assume you’re not capable of participating and, as some members of The Mighty community point out, even friends don’t make an effort to include you.
Most things I see shared by friends and family on social media are to me very hard to see. I am excluded, not there, not even asked anymore, assumed not interested or unable. Makes me so sad and lonely. The gap between the healthy and working and the sick and poor is a very deep wide chasm and only growing. — Melissa F.
‘At least.’ I mention that some small change could be made to actually include me, but the reply is ‘At least you get to watch.’ — Vicki P.
Minimization refers to any suggestion that people with disabilities are “overstating” their needs and could be able-bodied if they “want to.” It suggests disability is somehow a choice and allows nondisabled people to brush off the barriers the disability community faces for equal access, from the physical inaccessibility of public spaces to unemployment and lack of adequate health care coverage.
‘Get better.’ When friends or family say it, it’s like they never heard you say the word chronic. They don’t understand that’s the only thing you want and it’s currently not possible. — Krista I.
After coming back from medical leave from work, [people say] ‘How was your vacation?’ Or, ‘Must be so nice to sit at home all day.’ — Lyndsey M.
I think people who aren’t blue badge holders parking in disabled bays outside supermarkets ‘because they are only nipping in for one thing’ is the most common microaggression. — Lorna M.
Everyone else on the face of this planet gets to complain about how their back hurts, or their feet hurt, or they ‘just can’t seem to wake up’ and I listen and stay sympathetic but when it’s my turn, I’m met with eye rolls and sighs and a ‘Come on, it’s not really that bad.’ — Kai N.
My faith has continually been questioned. Because I am not healed, I am told that I am not trusting God enough or I am not praising God enough or I am not praying for healing enough. — Marisa S.
3. Denial of Personhood
Denying personhood means that the microaggressor is assuming a physical disability indicates decreased mental capacity, or if a person has an intellectual disability, they are incompetent. These false stereotypes lead to microaggressions such as treating disabled people like children, not taking them seriously and only seeing a person’s disability instead of their whole person. It can render people with disabilities invisible.
If someone pushes me into a shop in a wheelchair, and we talk to the shop assistant — nine out of 10 times they’ll talk to whoever’s pushing me. — Christine C.
To me, the micro comes more in the tone than words. Surprise I not only work but own the company (then told how wonderful I am using a childlike voice). Shock that I’m happily married. Assumptions that I don’t know information or that I need someone to do everything for me. — Jamie S.
Otherization means treating disabled people as “abnormal, an oddity or nonhuman,” leading to microaggressions like staring or believing people with disabilities shouldn’t have children. This reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are different and therefore somehow don’t deserve equal access to life experiences.
People that think I cannot parent my son because I’m a wheelchair user (paraplegic) or that my child is missing out because I’m in a wheelchair. — Jessica G.
I have a service dog so I get this one a lot: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ — Cassidy S.
I experience them constantly but the one that’s been bugging me the most lately is that this dude in one of my classes always asks me, ‘Why are you so broken?’ As a joke. — Mattie B.
How Can You Cope With Microaggressions?
Conover said there’s a lot we don’t know yet about the short and long-term impact of microaggressions on people with disabilities, though some studies suggest that the more microaggressions a disabled person experiences, the more they report having symptoms of depression. When it comes to responding to a microaggression, Conover cited Kevin Nadal, a microaggressions researcher, who published a three-step process you can follow:
1. Ask yourself, “Did this microaggression really occur?”
This might be obvious — for example, if you have often experienced being ignored while you are in your wheelchair, you likely can identify it instantly as a microaggression. Or you could ask others who witnessed the microaggression if they think you interpreted it correctly to validate your experience. You could also reach out to friends and family to get their opinion; Nadal cites an example of people who describe what happened on Facebook, eliciting support from their friends.
2. Ask yourself, “Should I respond?”
Nadal recommends keeping in mind the potential risks of responding or not responding to a microaggression as you decide what to do. You might consider factors like your physical safety — are you in any danger if you respond to the behavior? Is there a likelihood you will regret not saying anything? Will not responding make it seem like you are condoning the behavior? There is also your relationship to the aggressor to consider — will responding lead to an argument or will responding affect your relationship with the person? It’s up to you to decide how any of these risks could affect you and if responding to a microaggression is worth that risk. And keep in mind, there’s nothing wrong if you decide not to respond — it can be exhausting to educate nondisabled people about their ableism.
3. Ask yourself, “How should I respond?”
According to Nadal, there are a few different approaches you could take if you do decide to respond to a microaggression. One option is a passive-aggressive response, like making a joke or sarcastic comment, rolling your eyes or talking to someone else about the behavior, hoping it will get back to the aggressor. These options can communicate your frustration at the microaggression in a less direct way.
Another approach is a more assertive response. You could yell back, which may feel therapeutic and could be an option if you just don’t have the energy to engage in a long discussion. Or, you could take a “calmer” approach, like using “I”-statements to convey the emotional impact of the behavior. Nadal also suggests that it may be important to address the behavior and not the perpetrator — i.e. saying the microaggression is ableist instead of “you’re ableist,” especially if it’s someone you want to maintain a relationship with.
Beyond if and how you respond, it’s important to make sure you take care of yourself, because even microaggressions can have a big impact on your mental health. “However it is handled, Dr. Nadal encourages people to process emotions and seek social support following a microaggressive interaction,” Conover added.
In order for microaggressions to become less common, Conover said many deep-rooted beliefs and values about disability need to shift; for example, how we as a society view productivity and independence. All human beings should be viewed as having an innate worth, and at minimum, nondisabled people should trust disabled people’s experiences and knowledge.
“It is important to remember that everyone commits microaggressions, so we need to have the humility to admit to our mistake, apologize and learn from it,” Conover said.