Today I wanted to talk about something that I’ve been stewing on for quite a while, but just couldn’t figure out how to phrase. The title pretty much says it all, but I’m going to be going into as much detail as possible to try and explain how ‘normal’ people refusing to do these little things can have negative impacts on the disabled community for decades to come.
The rather obvious reason is because refusing to wear masks increases the likelihood of passing on the virus and disabled people are likely to be more at risk than abled people. I feel this is a very obvious point, but I felt I should mention is anyway, even though that isn’t the main reason for me making this post. I would have thought wanting to protect others would be the top of most people’s priority list, but you never know, so I thought I’d mention it.
Before we continue I thought it would be prudent to remind or inform anyone who may not know of exactly how I am disabled since I don’t ‘look it’. First and foremost I am Autistic, but I also have Tourette’s Syndrome, Multiple mental health issues and am in the process of being diagnosed with a couple of other things as well. From the outside I appear fairly normal because after 17 years I’ve grown pretty good at masking my extreme discomfort and learnt to suppress my meltdowns and tics, but looking ‘normal’ and being able to pass as abled doesn’t make me any less disabled. I’m also in the process of trying to unlearn those things, so that I don’t have to suppress who I am or things I can’t help just to make other people feel comfortable.
That is a whole other blog post though, so let’s get back to the matter at hand.
Many of you probably don’t know this, but there are some people who are exempt from wearing masks for one reason or another – I am one of those people.
Face masks are now mandatory on public transport in England and it is strongly advised in many other indoor spaces, but there is a an exception to the rule for anyone with a disability “that means they cannot put on, wear or remove face coverings” (SOURCE)
Now I expect most people’s initial reaction is that I can’t possibly be one of the people exempt because I am physically capable of putting on and taking off a mask and yes I am perfectly capable of putting a mask on (I’m Autistic not stupid) what most people don’t account for is the distress the mask causes me when it is on.
A lot of people talk about how ‘they can’t breathe’ with the mask on and many doctors have already explained that this is not true; however, what I think medical professionals are not understanding is that for a lot of us it doesn’t matter whether or not the mask actually constricts our oxygen levels (it doesn’t), but it FEELS like it does. I can’t speak for every Autistic person, but I think most of us would agree (if not all of us) that anything that FEELS like it is restricting us is a complete no go and a one-way ticket to a complete meltdown.
Us Autistics don’t think the same way the rest of you do and so much of our world is made up of sensory experiences, so when you force us to wear something like a mask that FEELS like it is constricting our oxygen, it becomes completely irrelevant whether it actually is or not. Logically I know that I can still breath fine, but having a face mask on makes me FEEL like I can’t breath and is such a different sensory feel to what I’m used to that it overwhelms me completely and leads to a meltdown.
So why am I telling you this? I think it’s important for me to explain exactly why I am exempt from wearing a mask and how much distress being forced to wear one causes me because although I am know I’m exempt and don’t owe anyone an explanation, the real world doesn’t work like that. In the real world people make assumptions, jump to conclusions, aren’t educated on anything to do with disability and are generally ignorant to my day to day struggles.
As I said, I know that I’m exempt and shouldn’t have to argue or explain that to anyone, but the fact of the matter is that I do not look disabled. I am not confined to a wheelchair, I don’t have missing limbs and look completely ordinary. If anything I’ve been told I look a lot older than my age (I’m only 17, so still technically a child, so this can cause issues) and that because I am generally very eloquent in the way that I speak, people never believe that I’m disabled and definitely not Autistic since they associate Autism with loud, ‘disrespectful’ little boys
Everywhere I go I get dirty looks, which doesn’t bother me immensely because I know I’m right and I’ve been looked at strangely for years, so it is hardly something new to me, but there are places where the masks are compulsory and they simply will not let you in whether you are exempt or not if you don’t wear a mask.
An excellent example of this is my recent trip to the apple store.
If you watch the vlogs, then you’ll know that I recently spent an arm and a leg on a new ipad pro. I could have ordered online, but I’m a student and you only get the student discount if you go into the store and since it is one damn expensive thing I was desperate to save every penny I could.
I am exempt, so we could have printed out the thing that says I am, brought all of my many diagnosis with us and stood there and argued with them about it for 40 minutes and still likely be told wear it or leave, but I really didn’t have the time or energy for that, so instead I wore the mask, trusted my mum to understand what everyone was saying and smiled and nodded. Not that they could see the smile of course because it was under the dreaded mask.
I’m sure a lot of people will now be thinking ‘well you wore it and you didn’t have a meltdown in the store, so it’s fine’. No, No and No. Did I mentioned No?
I am a damn good actor and am well practised in the skill of pretending everything is great, so just because I didn’t fall to floor and scream doesn’t mean I wasn’t crying on the inside. The apple store was mercifully empty apart from my mum and I and the guy helping us, which meant that there was significantly less sensory things for me to process than there would be say on public transport. The apple store itself is also blissfully minimalist in its design, so there wasn’t much to look at either. The very calm environment, the pretty good customer service and the knowledge that my mum knew what she was doing got me through it and we left within 10 minutes so that I could rip that stupid thing off again.
I may not have had a meltdown, but being all but forced to wear the mask for 10 minutes had a profound impact over the next few days. It took so much extra energy to make myself wear it, pay attention to what was happening, pretend I was a normal person and somehow hold a conversation with this guy took so much out of me that I didn’t do much for the next few days.
So if wearing it caused me so much distress why didn’t I fight for my right to not wear one? *sigh*
First of all, I shouldn’t have to fight, but I know that I live in a world that assumes far too much and is not educated nearly enough.
Second, having to bring every document that proves all of individual disabilities is both an awful lot of effort (for me to bring and you to read) and while I would do it if it would assure my right to not wear one, most people still don’t care. They will either go with the ‘it’s store policy’ line (yes it is for everyone who is NOT EXEMPT) or they will just outright refuse to believe I’m Autistic because I don’t fit their very damaging and incorrect stereotype, so in short there is really no point in arguing because 9 times out of 10 the answer is still wear the mask or leave and arguing takes even more out of me, so it is completely useless really.
And lastly if there is one sure way to trigger a meltdown it’s to start and argument with security in the middle of a loud, bright and busy shopping centre, so people can watch my identity be questioned!
So how does this relate to other ‘normal’ people wearing masks or not? Well I’m glad you asked. If everyone who is not exempt simply wore their masks with no argument then people like me with invisible disabilities wouldn’t have to choose between, suffering, arguing about whether or not I am in fact disabled or simply not going anywhere until at least next year.
If everyone just did as they were told and wore their masks then it would make millions of people’s lives 10 times easier because they wouldn’t be questioned and followed with dirty looks everywhere they went. Some people argue that they find the masks uncomfortable too and I think most people do, but the point is it is not going to cause you to uncontrollably sob in the middle of Tesco and render you incapable of brushing your teeth, showering or eating for the next 2 weeks. I think we can all agree there is a difference, so please just think about how your actions or inaction can affect other people because it is the tiny things that you might deem irrelevant that have the biggest impact on us.
This sort of narrative applies to all sorts of things as well such as abled people parking in our spaces. This makes it impossible for me and other disabled people who outwardly look able-bodied to park in our spaces without scrutiny or objection. The same applies to disabled toilets and even something as small as fidget spinners, which were designed with Autistic people in mind, but are now banned in so many places because they became a trend.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point – please think about how things could affect others and just follow the rules. It isn’t difficult.
My fellow disabled people – Do you have any similar experiences? How do you usually handle things like this? I’d love to know and start a discussion, so leave a comment down below or come and chat to me over on Instagram: @theautisticdreamer
Goodbye for now!
Over and Out