This phrase was recently uttered to me and a companion who remarked on someone’s lack of masking indoors during the ongoing pandemic. I plan to unpack it a bit, because it filled me with rage, and because it illustrates a sad deficiency in American worldview.
I guess I don’t blog about it very often, but I’m staunchly in favor of vaccines. When you’ve seen what polio can do to a person (a relative, in my case), you tend to turn out pro-vaccine. When you get a PhD, even in a non-scientific field, you tend to learn to trust the process, to understand what it takes to get permission to do a study and execute it. Sure, sometimes “bad science” gets done, but it’s always corrected, sooner or later…and with vaccines, there are lots of trials and protocols in place to make them ever more safe and effective.
So I was eager to get my COVID-19 vaccine, and upset when my state (Indiana) decided not to prioritize teachers, even those of us in the face-to-face classroom, initially. Then President Biden helped make vaccines more accessible, and I got mine, and then I started waiting for the people in my life to get theirs so that I could slowly live a life that was a bit less locked-down.
Simultaneously, this spring I was teaching a unit on disability in fairy tales… but also disability in the real world. It was just for my First Year Seminar on fairy tales, so my students hadn’t necessarily signed up to learn everything about disability studies, I get that, but I also view this as an incredibly important, relevant, and under-studied topic, so I did my best to present it in interesting and useful ways.
Most of my students were shocked, for instance, to learn about the origins of the Americans with Disabilities Act when we listened to this podcast on disability justice, or to learn about the debilitating/disabling effects of childhood trauma (I love this TED talk by Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris on the topic), or to learn about how narratives about disability often function as “inspiration porn” for nondisabled people (check out this YouTube lecture by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard on the topic).
Amazingly, each of these facets of disability appears in fairy tales: we see traumatized heroines who are silent (in line with one of the things trauma can do to our prefrontal cortex, shutting down speech centers); we see disabled characters like the maiden without hands magically losing their disabilities and being healed, in what I suppose is meant to be an inspiring display of faith; and we see disability equated with evil and deformity in many tales (and correspondingly in many pop culture texts), showing the real need for a disability justice lens to be applied when interpreting fairy tales.
Anyway, feel free to pop over to my post on folklore and disability to learn a bit more. The relevant thing to note here is that what also blew my students’ minds is just how common the experience of disability (broadly defined) in the U.S. is: according to some studies, 1 in 6 Americans are disabled. And that’s a middle ground number; some have it as high as 1 in 4, while others place it lower, something like 1 in 7.
So there I was, entering a brewery on a road trip with my (also vaccinated) traveling companion, who’d snarked to some people entering the place that yes, masks were required indoors. All the signage indicated that this was a thing.
“If you’re afraid, just stay home,” one of them shot back. And I didn’t have it in me to start an argument, hence this post, but there are so very many things wrong with that stance.
Framing the issue of pandemic safety as one of fear obscures the lived existence of disabled and immunocompromised people, as well as elders and children and those who care for them, who are disproportionately impacted by the health threats of the pandemic as well as the behavior of the fellow humans.
Telling someone who has very reasonable concerns about health and safety to “just stay home” ignores how disabled and immunocompromised people are already told to “just stay home” because making public goods accessible to various types of disabilities somehow seems too difficult or expensive for most organizations/businesses to figure out, despite the fact that it’s the fucking law to make things accessible (read up on the history of the ADA if you want to learn more about this and why it remains such a shit-show).
Telling someone who appears to care about upholding safety measures (like me in my mask) to “just stay home” ignores the fact that maybe there are people in my life who are disabled or immunocompromised, at risk because they’re very old, in cancer care treatment, or unable to get the vaccine because they are too young. This kind of fear-based, individualistic framing ignores how connected our social lives are; it ignores the reality of healthcare workers and teachers and caretakers, many of whom are women I might add, giving this an extra dose of misogyny, because any society that says “sure, come out into public at your own risk, er, vaccinated people only” is willfully excluding women since women remain primary caretakers of children soooo much more than men do.
What I wanted to say in that moment was, “No, you dipshit, I am not afraid for myself since I trust science and I’m feeling good about having received the vaccine, but I AM afraid on behalf of the people who cannot receive the vaccine, or who, even upon receiving it, are still marginalized from being able to be out in public by your disrespectful behavior. It’s pretty clear that you don’t know – or think you don’t know – anyone who is disabled or immunocompromised, anyone in chemo, anyone very young or very old, anyone who has valid reasons to still insist on mask-wearing and social distancing, and if you think getting to go out in public is a right reserved only for the healthy, well, I have news for you: around 1 in 6 Americans is disabled, and so you’re giving a substantial chunk of our population the middle finger right now, which reflects very poorly on you. This is not a fear issue at all, but rather an empathy issue, which you clearly lack. Now here is a giant stack of reading; go do your homework so you can be a less shitty human.”
Obviously that’s not what I said in the moment. Nor am I able to dole out homework on a whim to random strangers, as much as I wish it were so.
I don’t know how to teach these people empathy if they don’t already have it, and that makes me sad. Since I’m vaccinated in theory I could be going out and doing more things, but at this point I have so little faith in humanity, I don’t wanna. This Twitter thread on the history of polio, in a similar vein, quite informative but also inspired a lot of cynicism in me, since I think the majority of Americans simply do not give a shit about others’ lives anymore.
Further, apart from me writing this post in a fit of incandescent rage, I’m writing it to tie in these beliefs with my general sense of atheism: I don’t believe there’s an afterlife to reward or punish me, and so my main incentive in being around other humans is just to try to be a decent human for its own sake. This means trying to think outside my own experiences, and acknowledge that there are many types of people in this world, including some who are vulnerable to harm and exploitation and illness in ways that I may never truly comprehend. But I don’t need to understand a phenomenon on, like, a molecular level to try to take steps to reduce the harm it does to people.
I don’t care if wearing a mask when one is already vaccinated looks like virtue-signaling to some. If that’s your takeaway, you’re not my audience and I don’t give a crap about your (likely ill-informed) opinion. By wearing a mask, I’m signaling that I am attuned to very-real, still-valid fears about the ongoing global pandemic, and that I know that there are vulnerable populations still not being served by current policies, and I’m trying to make myself as safe as possible for them to be around.
(for the folks who have breathing issues or sensory issues and have put up with masks for this long and are eager to ditch them in relatively safe situations, like when outdoors and able to be socially distanced, I see you, that’s valid! not judging!)
Also? I have plenty of friends who work retail and restaurant industry, and seeing them have to go to work masked (which, granted, varies by state and city regulation) while customers ignore signs and come in unmasked and rudely get in their faces makes my insides churn. I feel like a jerk going to an establishment where those working there must mask but customers can get away with various levels of not being masked, vaccinated or not, so again, it’s a fairly simple thing to keep my mask on and indicate that I’m not going to turn any interaction into a brusque or aggressive demand based in selfishness, because goodness knows retail and restaurant workers get enough of that already!
I’m just trying to be a halfway decent ally to people who are frequently overlooked when it comes to public policy; I’m not disabled myself, so if you want to learn more, please directly ask disabled people what they need. If you’re looking around and thinking “I don’t know any disabled people” or “there are no disabled people here,” well then, you should use your relative privilege to change that! Don’t bring them in just to tokenize them (ew), but seriously ask questions about why your space may not be accessible to people with different disabilities.
Oh and while I’m ranting, we need to keep everything that was made more accessible during the pandemic accessible (work from home options, telehealth options, etc.).
In terms of wrapping up this monster of a rant, I dunno… I keep coming back to the thought that maybe at this point masking in every situation is unnecessary, maybe it’s hypervigilant (hi, trauma response!)… but at the end of the day, I’d rather be as safe as possible, and signal to vulnerable populations that I care about their safety too, than not do either of those things.