Unmasking Ableism

Recently, the mask mandate at Maryville College was lifted. While students across campus celebrated a return to a normal life, I could not help but feel angry. As time progresses, I find myself in a seemingly endless state of grief, as it becomes increasingly clear that returning to any semblance of a normal life will never be an option for disabled individuals.

As a disabled, high-risk woman, the pandemic forced me to confront three important truths about our society. First, the world is designed for able-bodied individuals, meaning it has never been built for my success. Second, marginalization of disabled individuals, through both macro and microaggressions, are far more present than originally perceived. Third, my life is only valued by able-bodied individuals when I can be used as either an inspiration or as a comparison to remind them just how blessed they are. 

Throughout the pandemic, the lives of disabled individuals were consistently politicized and devalued. The continuation of activities was justified by the false and dehumanizing reasoning that “only high-risk people would die, and they were destined to die soon anyways.” I watched as loved ones placed a movie, dinner, or even their “comfort” at a higher importance than my life. Any high-risk individuals that wanted to survive, like myself, were forced to live in isolation, pause their life, and take extreme precautions. 

During this time, I was a sophomore at Maryville College. I lived by myself, and I spent most of the year six feet away and masked from everybody, including my closest friends. I watched as my community became a warzone. I had to be on edge because I did not get to make mistakes. 

I was not simply fighting against a virus, like able-bodied people. Despite the mental health effects of being high-risk, I was fighting to be in classes, do my homework, and be a college student. I was fighting for my life, and to not die at 19 years old. I was fighting to keep living amid society’s devaluation of my life and apathy towards my community. In a society designed for my isolation and death, I was fighting to prosper.

Since I was a child, I have been aware that I need to work harder to prove myself, due to being disabled. I have experienced people telling me my disability is not real, pitying me, and telling me I will never achieve anything in life. During COVID-19, however, I realized just how pervasive and widespread discrimination truly is. This is seen through large actions, macroaggressions, observed during COVID-19, but it is also seen through microaggressions such as insulting comments, condescending attitudes, or even pitying questions. 

I have realized that disabled individuals are only valued when of use to able-bodied people. The system in our society discussed previously continues the narrative that the “limitations” of one’s disability rears them incapable of a successful, valuable life. There are many flaws with this, but the main one is that it places the burden of success on disabled individuals. Instead of providing proper accommodations, equal access to facilities, and full physical and social accessibility, our society forces disabled individuals to “overcome” every aspect of their disability for a chance at success. 

The truth is that the hardest thing for me to overcome is the social and physical inaccessibility of the world. The most difficult part of returning to college after heart surgery was not the effects of my surgery (It was my eighth one, and it was simple.). It was the fact that the inaccessibility on our campus, and the surrounding world, left me to decide which way of stressing my incision and body would be less painful and severe. 

I had to choose between exhaustion of walking to the opposite side of Sutton, Fayerweather, and other buildings on campus to access the only handicap doors, or the impact and pain of opening the heavy door post-surgery, on sternal precautions. 

Any memories of pre-pandemic kindness and empathy have been long covered up by the echoes of those devaluing and politicizing my life, and any chance of a normal life has been drowned and carried far away by the tears cried. I have watched loved ones shrug their shoulders in indifference, while my community, people like me, died. My ability to live a normal life was taken when I realized the marginalization and barriers I will continue to face as a disabled woman in our society. 

To celebrate the lifting of the mask mandates without recognizing the heartbreaking, ableist system COVID-19 highlighted is not only ignorant of the blood and tears that will continuously cover the battlefield, but it also hinders the ability to fight for change, thus perpetuating this harmful system.

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