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

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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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