I recently wrote about how much emphasis is put on looks. People often feel obliged to look a certain way to live up to society’s expectations. But what happens when you can’t change how you look? What happens when you have a visible disability?
I’ve written about invisible illnesses a few times. Sometimes, people with an invisible illness wish that their illness could be seen in order to get more understanding and support. But many people with a visible illness or disability actually hate the fact that their condition can be seen. They often find that people look, point fingers, poke fun and can be extremely rude or hurtful about their health condition.
Comedians, and even some well known politicians, have cruelly poked fun and made tasteless jokes about people with disabilities. And worse still, people laugh at them.
Why would anyone think that making jokes about disabilities is okay? And why would anyone laugh at them?
Jokes About Disabilities Are Not Funny
Am I, as someone with a visible disability, being over sensitive? I don’t think so.
I love to laugh. But I want to laugh about things that are funny. Joking about people with disabilities is not funny. It’s cruel.
I’ve Been Mocked Because of my Disability
I’ve been the butt of jokes. My scoliosis (curvature of my spine) is visible and I have had a difficult time in the past due to that. I have felt self-conscious, very awkward and embarrassed about it, especially when I was young.
As a youngster, I was much taller than classmates. Tall and thin, I was the ‘giraffe’ in the class. “How’s the weather up there?” I was often asked. “Skinny Malinky Long Legs…” was sung in the school playground. Kids do that. It’s not pleasant, but sadly, it’s normal. But teachers also made jokes about my height.
Then, at ten years old, my scoliosis developed. I had thought that being tall was bad, now my spine was going out of shape. I was young and self-conscious. My shape was making me different from other children. I detested my body. As I grew into a teenager, my scoliosis worsened. It started pushing my pelvis into an odd position, so that one side protruded more and sat higher than the other.
Clothes didn’t sit right on me. One leg appeared longer than the other. It was so obvious. I hated it. I hated how I looked. At times, I hated being me. I just wanted to look ‘normal’.
People noticed. People commented. Sometimes out of kindness, sometimes possibly out of sympathy, but very often people joked and mocked me.
Curious Classmates, Cruel Colleagues and Idiots Abroad
I can remember curious classmates crowding around me in high school, asking to see my back. Had I become a circus side show? I refused to show them. A teacher heard them and sent them on their way, but I could hear their laughter echoing along the corridor.
When I first started working in a hospital, a nurse often laughed at me (in front of other people) and said that I was walking ‘strangely’. She pointed out that my skirt was sitting higher at one side than the other and frequently told me I was so thin that I must be anorexic. She seemed to get enjoyment from embarrassing me.
During a holiday with my sister, some guys stood outside our apartment laughing and joking about my back. They’d been on the same flight and bus that took us to the apartment. They’d seen me and I became the butt of their jokes.
I didn’t know how to cope with the looks, comments and jokes. I didn’t show anyone that I was upset. I didn’t tell anyone how I felt. I kept it to myself. I had very little self-confidence. In my mind, I didn’t look normal. I was an oddity. Those people’s opinions confirmed that to me.
People With Disabilities Share their Feelings
I asked my Twitter followers about their experience.
A selection of responses :
I’ve had little children laugh and make fun of me because I use a cane to walk with, my age makes it worse because I’m 35 but my injury is to the spinal cord and without my cane I look normal I guess. Having multiple strokes doesn’t help either.
Yes, living with a muscle wasting disease has impacted my self confidence greatly! My facial muscles are affected which often makes expressions unreadable, people assume I’m sad constantly & them pointing out “you look so sad!” when I’m actually enjoying myself, is a real blow.
Yes. It’s hard not to in my situation. It’s not every day you see a lady in a wheelchair with her leg stuck straight out, no shoe on, and the skin looks “crazy” at best. Finally getting to a point that I don’t care anymore, but there are days.
Large incisional hernia following cancer surgery, which, along with subsequent weight gain, makes me look very oddly shaped. I use a stick sometimes because of arthritis. I often drop/spill things or fumble with fastenings due to essential tremor. All visible. All mortifying.
Well all of my stuff you can’t outwardly see.. but they do cause me to walk funny and more slowly. I think the most judgement I get is based on my weight. Since having all these physical problems and not being able to exercise and all the meds cause me to gain weight… I have a lot… so I get the well you fat that’s why you have problems when the problems caused me to be more fat!!
Living with a neurological disorder isn’t visible per se but living with permanent illness means I am forever deathly pale…always have been in fact. Been told I look like something out of the Walking Dead, etc. Why I always wear make-up to mask the effects of illness
Words Leave Invisible Scars
When people lose their self confidence, it can be very difficult to get it back. This can lead to emotional and mental health issues. People may suffer from depression and anxiety. They might not want to leave their homes. They might not want to face other people.
I did eventually grow in confidence and stopped caring about people looking or what they said. I still look at myself at times, get frustrated and think, oh, I hate how I look….but I don’t hate myself because of it. I no longer think of myself as an oddity.
I’ve shrunk a wee bit since I was a teenager, but I walk as tall as I possibly can and hold my head high. Most looks or comments I get now are related to my pain rather than my shape. Often I get pitying or sympathetic looks, but I think they come from a good place because people are concerned. Most people empathise. If someone does say something about my shape, I explain that I have scoliosis. I use it as an awareness opportunity.
Sticks and Stones may Break my Bones…
Everyone in life deserves compassion. People with illness or disability have enough to deal with. Mocking, tasteless jokes or rude comments can do serious damage to people.
When I was a young girl, I was taught to remember this verse – “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
That verse is wrong. So very wrong. What people say does matter. Words hurt and can have a lasting impact.