[culture] Further notes on the social invisibility of illness and disability


Yesterday I flew across the country wearing a face mask. This is something I’ve done several times of late. The resulting interactions are fascinating.

I’ve written before about social invisibility and mobility. Being on a scooter makes me socially invisible in a way that as a white man I’d never really experienced before. It was something between amusing and annoying, though mostly annoying.

Carrying a cane creates a more sympathetic response. Unlike the scooter, where people seem to assume I have a serious cognitive deficit, the cane (mostly) elicits courtesy at doorways and in lines and direct interactions from people.

I think the difference between the two is height. Even with the cane, my face is in an adult male position with respect to others. On a scooter, I am below the line of sight of everyone except children and people of very small stature.

But the mask… The mask creeps people out. It will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I make a lot of eye contact with other people, especially women. When I’m wearing the mask, I encounter avoidance behaviors on a massive scale, that I rarely if ever encounter without the mask. It’s as if I’ve become creepy stalker guy. Men avoid me, but in somewhat different ways, as if I am embarrassing to them.

In other words, a lot like being back in high school.

I assume there’s a fear, spoken or unspoken, that as I am wearing a mask, there’s a chance of catching something horrible from me. It’s a marker of illness, a banner of disease. It generates not so much social invisibility as borderline pariah status. The reality in my case is that I’m trying not to catch something from the people around me, but they have no way to know that.

So, in simple terms, this is my experience of how I’ve been perceived and treated:

Scooter: Invisible and cognitively compromised
Cane: Visible and even treated with respect
Face Mask: I am the Walking Dead and I will eat your brains

Ah well.

Photo © 2014, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.

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11 thoughts on “[culture] Further notes on the social invisibility of illness and disability

  1. This makes me want to market a whole line of face masks that say witty things like, “My lips get cold,” or even serious things like, “I have cancer, that’s why.” Or a real hum-dinger: “Go ahead, you want to ask.” People. Ugh.

    1. Jim Crider says:

      Or, “Immunocompromised. I’m wearing this so I don’t get anything from YOU.”

    2. Wendy S. Delmater says:

      I’m not contagious, or I’m just on medicine that makes me more likely to catch your cold.”

  2. Diane Asyre says:

    The Lone Ranger was noted for his unusually strong moral and ethical code. And his mask. You have that in common.

  3. SoonLeeNZ says:

    Context is the thing. When we visited Vietnam, masks were very common & no-one thought twice. But I see the occasional person wearing a mask in Auckland & it makes me look twice at them because it’s uncommon, but also because I have associate masks with contagious.

  4. SoonLeeNZ says:

    ETA: ..because I associate “masks” with “contagious”, even though I know that’s wrong.

  5. K`shandra says:

    I’m wondering if a professionally-made mask would have made a difference (much as I love the flame pattern, you’re definitely rocking the “bandito” look here). If nobody has pointed you in the direction of Vogmask, I’d recommend checking them out; for what are likely obvious reasons, they’re incredibly popular amongst the Burning Man set.

  6. Karen says:

    The assumption I have on seeing that mask is that you have a serious facial deformity you want to hide (which is my problem, yes). Maybe try a plainer/pastel coloured/see through or surgical mask for reduced scariness level? It’s uncommon for people to cover their faces in our societies (cf. level of opposition to burqa wearing) so is likely to get odd looks/people avoiding you.

  7. rcs says:

    My husband uses a cane most days and a walker on his weaker days. When he uses the cane, he gets the “dignified older gentleman” treatment. When he uses the walker, he gets the “invisible and cognitively impaired” treatment. Many people speak to me about him rather than directly to him. So I don’t think it’s solely a height, it’s a preconceived association of greater physical disability = lesser mental ability.

  8. Robert Mullins says:

    Is any of this surprising to you?

    1. Jay says:

      Not in the slightest. But going through it personally is very different from being intellectually aware of it.

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