Written by Asaka Mae.
Photo by Larm Rmah.
I’ve dealt with loneliness, long before COVID-19 struck. Despite my outgoing nature, I’ve always had a hard time making friends; acquaintances treated me like a total stranger. Social media has made it easier to meet like-minded people, but it’s still hard. Maintaining an active social life is an uphill battle and sometimes I’m certain I’ll slide right back into obscurity if I ever stop grinding. I know that friendships are about quality, not quantity, but I’m more of an extrovert and I can’t help but worry about wearing out my few, close friends with my pent-up, atomic social energy.
Isolation is the worst part of being disabled for me. I was officially diagnosed with Autism and ADHD, but my experiences don’t neatly fit into these boxes. It is undeniable, though, that my disability impacts socialization. I often behave in an unexpected way, leaving others flustered.
Social media has made it easier to meet like-minded people, but it’s still hard.
I thought for a long time that my neurological differences were responsible for my social woes. When someone put their headphones back in within 3 minutes of saying hi, I told myself that it was because I ran out of things to say — after all, small talk isn’t my forte. And when someone pretended to not hear me or flashed that uneasy smile, I told myself that I must’ve said something weird — after all, my impulsivity lends itself to abrupt interjections. You get the idea.
But what if there was more to the story?
I began asking myself a year or two ago as I unraveled all the ways I have been systematically, and often, deliberately, excluded by society. When it comes to my disability, many people harbor additional biases, aside from the sincere confusion evoked by my unexpected behaviors. To put it simply: people can be prejudiced AF.
The telltale signs of disability, like my speech impediments and my tics, may not be all that distracting per se, but they mark me as disabled, like a scarlet letter on my chest. Someone’s attitude towards disability can make or break the interaction. Far too many times I’ve sensed that my words and actions are not taken for what they are, but rather, twisted through the lens of ableist stereotypes. At times, I feel trapped behind this lens, like this impenetrable wall.
Many view me as a liability, rather than a person. I know that some of my symptoms can be jarring, but I don’t merely exist to disturb other people. I can tell when someone is so caught up in bracing for the potential Awkward Moment™ that they cannot engage with the content of what I’m saying. I notice that they flinch every time I speak out of turn or mix up my words, when they wouldn’t bat an eye when a non-disabled person exhibits the same behavior. The fixation with my most vulnerable moments is dehumanizing.
I unraveled all the ways I have been systematically, and often, deliberately, excluded by society.
Such scrutiny is all too familiar to me, as I navigate a world that views disabled individuals as untrustworthy. I know, because I’ve internalized these beliefs. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve caught myself talking down to other disabled people. It’s not right. I’ve personally sought out works by other disabled people to challenge my own misconceptions, but those who are unaware may not think twice about writing me off. If I’m nice, they’ll pity me for my naïveté. If I’m mean, they’ll say I lack basic social skills. If I stand out, they’ll pathologize the hell out of me like I’m a petri dish under a microscope. If I blend in, that’s just another reason for them to replace me for someone who’s more able. It’s not even that non-disabled people possess an ability to find a happy medium — 99.9% of my friends wouldn’t last a minute on this tightrope. And yet, people like me are set up to fail, not just in classrooms and boardrooms, but also in casual social interactions.
Microaggressions screwed me up. As a teenager, I coped with my frustration by posting online, documenting every detail of my life and defending every move. As my online behavior became more and more erratic, my classmates became increasingly scared of me. I’m happy to report I’ve abandoned my cringeworthy theatrics to hone in on professional writing. I wouldn’t come as far as I have, if I didn’t take responsibility for my actions — and (there’s always an and, isn’t there?) in order to Get It Together, I had to ask myself why I was hurting and how I could heal.
I’m astounded by all the ways ableist conditioning has warped the way the world sees me and the way I see the world. I’m clearly not the first person to say this, but the stigma surrounding my disability has hindered me just as much as, if not more than, my disability itself.
The stigma surrounding my disability has hindered me just as much as, if not more than, my disability itself.
I’ve long been intrigued by my ability to intuit social cues and norms, an ability commonly said to lack in autistic people. The reality is, reading the room can only take me so far when I won’t be treated like everyone else in the room. Far too often, people are alarmed by me and dismissive of me, as though I’m a reckless little girl on the loose, roaming up to the grown-up’s table. As such, my propositions are dismissed with tense smiles, one-word replies, and a sickeningly clinical tone. I am disheartened that the world fails to recognize me as (to borrow the words of the late disability activist Stella Young) “a strong, fierce, flawed adult woman.” I deserve better. We deserve better.
I’m a pragmatist. I readily acknowledge that my disability comes with practical challenges that cannot simply be looked past. That doesn’t mean other people can hide behind these realities to justify their bigotry. They may project their preconceived notions onto me, turning the interaction unnecessarily awkward, but they won’t take away my dignity.
About The Author
Asaka Mae is a disabled writer who covers wellness, lifestyle and culture. Get to know her at byasakamae.com