They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, yet we do it every day. In fact, there are entire departments at book publishers dedicated to nothing other than creating attractive and enticing cover designs to help lure us towards buying the books they contain. While it is true that the ultimate quality of the book will be determined by what is inside it, in the absence of a recommendation or more information, we nevertheless make initial observations and judgments largely by what we see on the cover; on the outside of the book.

Disabled people have the same challenge, as their fellow citizens will make judgments on the legitimacy of their disability based on external observations, particularly when their underlying impairment is not visible to the casual observer.

I will be the first to admit I am guilty of this. Recently my wife and I stopped at a convenience store in New Mexico. There was a relatively long line of customers waiting to pay for their goods, with two cashiers behind the counter. One cashier was busy checking out customers. The other had finished checking someone out, but could not start helping the next. The customer, self absorbed and oblivious to those behind him, was carrying on about problems in his life. I missed the early points, but clearly heard him say, “They won’t pay for my medicine, and I have to move. I had to borrow money from my friends just to get through with this”. The “this” was a bag containing products he had just purchased.

When I got to that cashier I asked him what his issue was. She told me she had known him a long time, and he was on disability, although she did not know the reason why. Apparently his wife had just left him. The two cashiers then proceeded to mock his complaining style, mimicking a litany of complaints they had heard from him. This was not his first convenience store rodeo it would appear.

And the products he had purchased? He used the money he had borrowed from friends, “just to get through”, on a large bottle of vodka and a six pack of beer.

My impression? His wife made a good decision. Is that fair? Perhaps not. I do not know what happened to him, or what his impairment is. He “looked” healthy to me. Still, in the absence of other input or information, what is the average person going to think? There are our tax dollars at work; swirling down the gullet of a narcissistic whiner. (Please note my original inclination was to use the phrase “whiny butthole”, but opted for the more elegant and sophisticated phrasing of “narcissistic whiner” – evidence no doubt that I am growing and maturing as a writer.)

I wrote recently about the difference between the disabled and the “disabled”. You can read that article here for a full explanation of the difference, but suffice it to say that the disabled essentially are, while the “disabled” think they are.

A LinkedIn friend and occasional commenter left a missive to that story, telling us of his teenage son witnessing a relatively young woman park her car in a handicapped space at the mall, then proceeding to “jog” into the store. When an older woman took her to task for parking there, she, to the surprise of all around, removed her lower leg and hopped on one leg into the store, showing the world that she did indeed have an impairment.

I would postulate, that while she may have had an impairment, she did not necessarily have a major disability. She was capable of “jogging”, and in such a manner that others were not even aware of her prosthesis. She may have met the legal terms for her disabled placard, but she didn’t leave a good impression that furthers the cause of the disabled. She definitely contributed to that perception problem.

And finally, an encounter here in my blog was another example of this phenomenon. An apparently “disabled” person took huge exception to my views on the widening use of the disability safety net, accusing me of enriching myself at the expense of the disabled and downtrodden (note to self – trade the Hyundai for a Bentley). They accused me of “trying to turn disabled people into scapegoats for the destruction that the corrupt economic policies of the wealthy and powerful have created.” They went on to tell me their disability, the result of “accumulated injuries of a hard life”, required them to use voice dictation software to even leave the post, a clumsy and burdensome process indeed.

That particular person left a link to their blog, where, in addition to calling me names, they recounted the trials and tribulations in their fight for disability, revealing periods of struggle and homelessness. Of course, that blog also offered links to their tax preparation services, their realty website, and their web design services. We also found a legal document prep firm they ran. Clearly the busiest “disabled” homeless person I’ve ever met. Not sure how they do all that on voice dictation software.

This same person also defended some “disabled” not working because they could only find “meaningless and often unproductive” jobs, and included this interesting statement:

“Setting aside globalization, automation and robotics, there is another issue that is never expressed because it is to some extent not appropriate to talk about: Working for a complex that one profoundly disagrees with – Military, surveillance, drones, empire, WalMart, etc. Who wants to be part of that?”

Right. Indeed. Who wants to be part of that? There is far more dignity in letting the “complex” send you a check every month.

That particular person may very well have a true disability. I will not issue a final judgment on that. I am willing to bet, however, that many of you will. Because we do, in fact, sometimes judge books by their covers.

And that is the perception problem disabled people face. The real problem is that the truly disabled are not helped by the lesser impaired who believe they are totally “disabled”. Their bombastic responses to criticism, the confrontational approach to anyone who questions their condition, all play into this image.

Injured workers often have a dilemma. The same restrictions that interfere with their work also affect their personal lives. I’ve heard injured workers’ complain that, just because they can’t return to work because of lifting restrictions, others have no right to expect them not to lift their child or perform other similar functions around the house and in their private lives. They maintain that they have to have some quality of life, and “we” have no right to judge”. I get their frustration. I understand the desire to have some normalcy despite impairment and “disability”. They are going to do some things at home, such as hold a child, that while not in their physical interest, are things that serve basic human needs.

But they have to understand that this comes at a price. This will leave an impression on others, particularly when accompanied with a “world be damned” attitude. By doing things at home that are not within their restrictions, they are essentially telling us they will do the things they want to do, just not the things they need to do. Those actions contribute to a perception of selective disability. That does not further the image or the cause.

Finally, if you have impairment that leaves you with true disability, especially if it is not visible to others, keep in mind that your actions, your behavior, will be judged by what others see. I am not saying that this is right, or just, or fair. I am merely suggesting that it just is.

And unfortunately for you, others perceptions of you will become their reality. In the absence of a well delivered message, your exterior, which includes your behavior, is the cover by which you will be often judged.


You may read Part I of The Perception Series here.

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