I’ve Navigated the Disability Stigma My Entire Life. Here’s Why Normalizing Our Differences Is Important.

An ASL version of this blog is embedded below.

By Cat Romero

Joy for me, as a deaf individual, is when I get accommodation without hesitation.

It surprises me when a worker takes their phone out to communicate with me after I tell them I’m deaf — because I deal with the alternative daily. The alternatives include people continuing to speak to me even after I’ve informed them that I am deaf and cannot hear, or rejecting my suggestion to communicate in another way simply because it is inconvenient for them. When I experience these alternatives, I feel small and out of place. So, people who accommodate without any hesitation bring me joy. They make me feel normal for a moment.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has led to major changes for the disability community, one law cannot change the attitudes of everyone in our nation. The stigma attached to the disability community has harmed us — mentally and physically. I cannot speak for every person with a disability, but I am confident that the experience of this stigma — an experience that destroys one’s sense of identity and belonging — is universal.

In my life, many encounters have left a sour taste in my mouth, but one that particularly comes to mind is an experience with a doctor. When I was 10 years old in 2010, I had an opportunity to attend a deaf camp in Northern California. A company named Angel Flights graciously provided me with a free flight from Southern California to the camp. One of their flight requirements was to get a liability clearance from a doctor stating I was in good health to fly. I showed up at the doctor’s office with my mother, feeling super excited about the trip. The doctor I was seeing was new, and my mother acted as interpreter explaining that I was there to get a physical examination and to have the waiver signed. I will never forget the look on the doctor’s face — he was clearly taken aback by the use of sign language. His expression of threatened confusion foretold that the situation would not go well. As he began to inspect me, he noticed the hearing aids in my ears and became more flustered. The brief examination ended, and his professional determination was that he could not sign the form. Here was a highly respected professional implying I wasn’t fit to fly even after we informed him that I had flown before and that it was not a new concept for deaf people to fly on planes. I left the office with an empty form and a heavy heart. I knew in the back of my head that the situation was uncalled for — but I still couldn’t help but feel like I was a freak.

And this brings me to my point of how the ADA can only do so much, and why more work is needed 31 years after its passage. Many hard-working advocates with disabilities are pushing for better rights regarding accessibility, such as adding image descriptions to photos or requesting lightweight doors. This is very important work, but it is equally important for us to uplift disability voices to dispel the enormous amount of ignorance that exists throughout society. Obviously, I never saw that doctor again. A different, more knowledgeable doctor signed the form, and deaf summer camp was amazing. But the feeling I had that day has never left me. I revisit it again and again in different forms in my interactions with the world. I urge us all to be proactive and take on research in our own time so we don’t end up being the villain in someone’s story — the person who made them feel so small. There is so much to learn about our differences. The information, the debunked myths, and the answers to our questions are all available to us if we are willing to take the time and care. The more we learn, the more we stay open to the beauty of different approaches to life.

The only difference between me and an able-bodied person is that I use my hands and eyes to communicate. I hope this idea is not shocking to you, but I do not need to hear to exist or to ride on an airplane. We need to ask not just what policies can do for us, but what everyday people can do for each other. Let’s normalize our differences. Normalize making accommodations a priority. Normalize awkward conversations to ensure we are all heard.

Cat Romero is an intern at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights participating in the American Association of People with Disabilities’ 2021 summer internship program.