I go to the grocery store. Some patrons are masked, some are not. Some employees are masked, some are not. Welcome to America, I guess, where any public activity is done at your own risk, and where ableist views continue to rule.
I go to teach my college classes. Everyone is masked, hurray! This is not the case at every university, but I’m grateful to be at one that gets it.
I go to teach my dance classes. Everyone is masked (in part because I made it part of our group norms, and in part, because I’m lucky to have a conscientious group studying with me, after any anti-vaxxers self-selected out).
I go to a restaurant to pick up takeout. Only the serving staff are masked.
This is what my life looks like on a daily basis. Well, not the takeout, since teacher salaries are still not great in the U.S., even with a Ph.D.
These varied experiences give me cognitive whiplash, and I know a lot of it is because so many Americans selfishly refuse to acknowledge that their actions and beliefs have ableist implications.
For those of us who are immuno-compromised, or care about the immuno-compromised or disabled folk in our lives, it feels hostile and bizarre and not at all like a country that can come together in times of crisis, and yes I’m staring at you post-9/11 fake patriotism, since starting in 2020, daily COVID deaths began surpassing the entire death count of 9/11. The daily numbers fluctuate, of course, but in 2022 we’ve had multiple “surpassing 9/11 death” days and I just…I don’t even know what to do about the lack of public outcry.
Like, I get it. We Americans love freedom. I’m not gonna tell people to mask in their homes if they don’t wanna, that’d be invasive! But if you’re in a public or semi-public space, maaaaybe we should have rules to make people do the not-horribly-difficult-or-intrusive right thing to do, just like we have public health and safety laws about restaurant and healthcare workers washing their hands regularly.
I need you to care about disabled people’s lives more than you care about a vacation, a party or a celebration. A cornerstone of being disabled in an ableist world is isolation. This is part of the trauma of ableism. Disabled people are marked over and over by isolation through material, social and cultural inaccessibility, stigma, fear, violence and shame. We live with various forms of social distance our entire lives. During this pandemic, many disabled people, particularly those who are high risk, have not left their house or seen anyone for years, save the people they live with. You take the luxury of in-person connection for granted and feel entitled to it, even as thousands around you die and suffer, even as you may risk prolonging and worsening the pandemic.
Wearing a mask—and making others do so as well—is one of the very least things we can do. It’s setting an insultingly low bar for human decency. It is, for most people (though yes, some have sensory issues which can be difficult) not that huge an imposition.
So where is the mask mandate for public spaces? Why are government officials and employers more afraid of upsetting some freedom-nonsense-chanter than of allowing the infection to spread? Just because the anti-mask and the anti-vaccine crowd is louder doesn’t mean they’re right, and those of us who do perceive the issue with some (gasp) empathy owe it to the most vulnerable among us to be louder and shout out the ableist and insensitive jerks.
If firmly asking people to wear a mask during the spread of a highly-infectious respiratory disease is too much for most Americans, I don’t even want to know what’s next. No doubt it’ll be just as ableist and harmful to the vulnerable, among other things. Mingus points out in her essay that ableism and poverty are often inseparable, and no doubt it’ll be just as devastating as this iteration of the pandemic is, if not more so.