Backhanded Compliments and the Tyranny of “Nice”

Many children learn early on that their smallest accomplishments are cause for cheers, applause and glowing social media posts. When you’re very young, your every milestone and every “first” are worthy of celebration, and with good reason. There’s nothing wrong with praising a child for walking well or pouring drinks with accuracy. For most people, this trend eases and finally stops, and they start earning praise for more impressive stuff like finishing a degree or landing a great new job. It would be pretty weird to keep cooing and cheering over an adult who can navigate their own home without guidance and pour coffee independently, yes? You’d be mortified if someone seemed surprised that you, a fully-grown adult, were capable of essential daily living tasks, right?

Right?

Sadly, an awful lot of  very well-intentioned people appear to have missed that memo—the one that says admiring someone’s basic skills stops being cute when they’re all grown up, and that disability is no exception to this rule. It is no less embarrassing to hear “Wow! You handled those steps so well!” or “You got your own coffee!” when disability is involved. While some of us do work harder than the average person on cultivating everyday skills—some of us very hard, in fact—drawing attention to our prowess can feelmore patronizing than validating. I don’t speak for everyone, which is the caveat I always mention at this point in a post, but I can say with confidence I do speak for a very large number of us.

Look, I get it: you want to say something nice, make someone smile, acknowledge what you consider to be exceptional talent or strength or perseverance. Maybe you feel inspired by the person you’re complimenting, or perhaps you can’t think of a better way to break the ice. It could be that you’re genuinely curious about how they get things done given the barriers they face, or you’re anticipating they’ll need help later and you want to develop rapport in advance. You’re a nice person, just trying to do a good deed for someone else. I truly do understand.

Keep this in mind, though: a great many times, being kind is preferable to being nice. Emotions tend to run very high in these types of situations, because no one likes discovering their attempt to make someone happy might be backfiring. Nevertheless, I do believe most people want to treat disabled people kindly, and kind people don’t make others feel condescended to or humiliated, even with the best of intentions. Kind people consider context, and compliment accordingly. And kind people don’t let “I was just being nice” outweigh any harm they might cause.

You may be shaking your head, feeling down on yourself because you know you’ve messed up this way. I beg you not to take this personally, however. In my experience, just about everybody makes this mistake at least once. It’s not isolated, and it’s not rare. Even if you actually have a disability, you have probably done this to someone without being aware of it. Proximity to disabled people should never be mistaken for immunity, and I’d be hard pressed to think of someone who hasn’t fallen into this trap. I’ve certainly spent some time there myself, and I ought to have known better.

So, here’s a simple test to help you. Next time you plan to praise a disabled person for a specific skill, ask yourself whether you would feel awkward if that compliment were directed at you. Would it make you uncomfortable if someone patted you on the back for, say, picking out your own outfit? Might it be a little off-putting if someone congratulated you for knowing where the staff kitchen was, six months after you started working in the building?

If you determine that the compliment you want to offer would make you feel pretty good about yourself, go ahead, as long as it’s contextually appropriate. Feel free to tell me if you like my writing skills. Tell my designer friends they have excellent creative instincts. I have no doubt my partially sighted partner would love to hear that you enjoy his cooking. These are all respectful compliments, and there’s no backhanded “You do well … for a disabled person”subtext attached. Further, you avoid giving the impression that people whose disabilities mean they do need help with basic tasks are somehow inferior to people who are able to do those tasks independently. After all, an adult who needs assistance with grooming, for example, is no less worthy for needing that help.

On the other hand, if the compliment you’re considering would feel insulting or at least bizarre if directed at you, that is your cue to pause. Think about whether you might be causing more discomfort than goodwill, and be mindful of who is around. Being complimented on my travel skills when I’m crossing the street is one thing. It’s distracting and unnecessary, but I’ll survive. In a professional setting, however, it’s likely to make other people notice me not for my solid work ethic or valuable skills, but for a disability that does not and should not fully define me.

Don’t be shy about telling people what you admire about them. Nothing in this post is suggesting you have to conduct a full-scale cost-benefit analysis every time you make a positive comment around a disabled person. I’ve received quite a few thoughtful compliments in my life, and while I’m not as graceful about taking them as I’d like, they’re always welcome. I do ask that, in future, you run through that simple test in your mind, and practice being more deliberate about how you dish out praise. Many, many of us will thank you, if only inside our heads.

Oh, and if you simply want to know how something gets done, or how a particular barrier is managed? Google your question, or ask. If we’re not crossing an intersection or trying to do our shopping, most of us are quite happy to answer.

The World is a China Shop (but I am not a Bull)

One of my earliest memories is of committing, as many people call them, a random act of blindness. I was navigating one of those stores not designed for most humans. You know the ones: narrow aisles, delicate displays, teetering piles of items just begging to be toppled. My cane bumped something made of glass, which promptly shattered with what I felt was an unnecessary amount of drama. Immediately, my parents began apologizing as a staff member swooped down on us, sweeping up the pieces and saying very little. Maybe it was my parents’ reflexive need to apologize for my blindness, rather than focusing on the actual damage done, or the woman’s tight-lipped refusal to reassure, but the shame was instant and pervasive. Even as a very young child, I knew enough to realize I’d done a terrible thing, well beyond the realm of typical childlike troublemaking. I had drawn attention to myself and my fundamental differences. I had not been careless, though I’d certainly broken things for that reason before. I was not touching objects I shouldn’t, nor was I being especially rowdy. In fact, I was doing my best not to brush up against anything at all, aware that we were in a sacred-seeming place where impeccable behaviour was paramount. This had happened because I couldn’t see; because I was different; because I couldn’t control my impact on the world as rigidly as other kids could.

As I grew, I witnessed enough nondisabled people knocking things over and making messes to learn that what I’d done in that cluttered store was very human and very normal. All around me, people spill food and knock over their drinks. When they cook, food splatters. When they go into a badly designed store, they displace items just by walking past them. How many times have I stepped carefully around messes while out and about? It happens. People make mistakes. The world is an unpredictable place that is rarely designed for the maximum comfort of its population. Clear paths and barrier-free environments don’t seem very common, even though everyone would benefit from them. We are all living in a china shop, and we are all of us bulls at some point.

And yet, concerned strangers continue to treat me with fear–not only for my safety, but for theirs.

“Watch what you’re doing with that cane.”

“Are you gonna hit me with that thing?”

“Hold on, hold on, I’ll get out of your way!”

If you want to make someone feel like a cross between a fragile doll and a rampaging rhinoceros, say things like that. Bonus points if there’s a child involved.

The shame persists. I knocked over a plant at work this morning, which was perched on a window ledge. A casual sweep of my hand wasn’t enough to locate the obstacle, and when I set my backpack on the ledge, as I do at least once a week, the plant fell to the floor, pieces of its wooden stand skittering noisily into a corner. The whole affair was loud and humiliating, , and when I told a fellow blind friend about it, she shared my disproportionate shame.

“So I knocked over a plant this morning. I committed plantslaughter!”

“Noooo! Not plantslaughter! I think I would have died of embarrassment.”

“Had death been an option I might have considered it at that moment.”

Of course making messes and destroying someone else’s belongings is embarrassing. I think most people would find it so. Few would walk away from such an incident without feeling a twinge of guilt.

But as I poured myself a coffee, reassured that the plant would survive, that old familiar shame returned. I was a bad, careless blind person. My colleagues would think I couldn’t be trusted. I should have double and triple-checked that window ledge. How would I ever be taken seriously if I carried on this way?

Clumsy.

Awkward.

Unprofessional.

At some point, my more rational side piped up: wasn’t I being a wee bit hard on myself here? Was all this self-flagellation appropriate? I knocked over a plant, which wasn’t supposed to be there anyway. I didn’t harm anyone, or murder a puppy. I knocked over a precariously positioned object, I apologized, and I got the mess taken care of right away. I apologized some more. How was this situation different from when nondisabled people knock something over?

It wasn’t. Perhaps a sighted person would have seen the plant and been more careful, but perhaps they would have missed it in the dimly lit room, or been too distracted to notice. The absence of disability is no perfect shield against mistakes, and sighted people are not inherently graceful. If anything, I am slightly more cautious than the average person because I know that any error I do make may be misinterpreted. White canes and service dogs are sometimes identified as health and safety issues, which functionally means that the person using them is also a health and safety issue. Someone to be feared. Someone to be planned for. Someone to be managed.

I will never be comfortable with making a mess—social anxiety will make sure of that. I don’t enjoy disrupting my environment and I’ll always connect such disruptions, at least tangentially, with my disability. I will probably always apologize a little too profusely.

Next time it happens, though—and it will happen—I’ll think back to this moment, where I realized that I was making afar larger fuss than anyone around me. My unwarranted reaction, far from doing damage control, made it more likely that someone would alter their view of my professionalism and competence. Better to simply apologize, take care of the mess, and give myself the same grace I so easily give to everyone else.

I hope you will think back to this, too, and I hope you will give yourself a little grace.

Enough With the Sick Day Humblebrags

All my life, I’ve been surrounded—some might say afflicted—by troupers. You know the type: they can work through anything, raging fevers and hacking coughs be damned. Industriousness in the face of illness is a point of pride, and rest is for other, presumably weaker, people. Their insistence on being out and about when they’re contagious does cause some cringing from those around them, but discreet disapproval is nothing to a long-time trouper.

The trouper’s crowning achievement? They haven’t taken a sick day in ten, twenty, thirty years. Perhaps they did, once, but it was life or death, so that’s forgivable—just barely.

I’ve sat self-consciously among these trouper types, growing progressively guiltier as they list the ailments that didn’t stand between them and their work. Shifting restlessly, I’ve listened to them condemn people who choose to take sick days, trading anecdotes about rampant abusers of the system. I’ve begged the universe to disperse my atoms as they called for bonuses that would reward employees for refusing to use their allotted sick leave. No one stopped to consider what that might mean for people like me, even as I sat in their midst. Most irksome of all, no one stopped to admit that not needing sick days said less about their work ethic and more about the privilege of a healthy body—something many of them took for granted.

The idea that we shouldn’t come to work sick is gaining ground, though it’s cold comfort for people who don’t have the privilege of paid sick leave. Employees are encouraged not to expose their colleagues to contagious illnesses, and sick day guilt is finally being acknowledged as a mainstream issue. Doctors are calling for an end to sick notes, citing the valuable time wasted, the germs needlessly spread to vulnerable patients, and the hefty bills employees and students with common colds are left to pay. (A few months ago, my poor partner paid $40 for a sick note.) As a student whose migraines were not well-managed, I dragged myself to walk-in clinics and hospitals when I should have been at home, resting and suffering in peace. I, too, have paid pretty pennies for slips of paper that declared what I already knew: I had a migraine, and I needed bedrest. Hoops must be jumped through, and HR departments must be appeased, but that doesn’t make the system sensible.

Sick day guilt persists. Employees who should be resting will sometimes work remotely. They take calls when they should be sleeping, or answer emails from a doctor’s waiting room. People lucky enough to have access to paid sick time still have concerns about job security, workloads, and cover-offs. Despite cultural acceptance of self-care and work-life balance, feeling terrible about staying home is practically a cliché. Even when employers actively encourage time off, many employees–and I include myself among them–feel more comfortable toughing it out.

Aside from the usual bugs that strike everyone each winter, I deal with chronic pain in my neck, shoulders, and back. The pain typically manifests as nagging headaches, stiffness, and muscle aches. Occasionally, nausea, watering eyes, and disorientation will join in, making it difficult to focus. When the pain peaks, which isn’t often, thank goodness, I struggle to find words, concentrate, and even orient myself physically. Spurred by sick day guilt, I have insisted on working during those severe pain days, even when it meant bouncing off doorways or making silly errors. Anyone with sense could see I ought to be resting, not working, but growing up around all those proud troupers had left a powerful impression.

I hit my lowest point while working a summer job. A combination of emotional stressors and a new medication made my migraines spike, and I woke one morning with a leaden feeling of wrongness throughout my entire body. I got on the bus, limbs tingling, and realized I was getting yet another migraine. I crossed a busy intersection to access my office building, but was so dizzy I couldn’t identify which way was forward. When I tried to climb the steps into the reception area, my feet failed to make the appropriate motions, and I fell. Twice.

When I got to my office, I immediately began working, hoping I’d be able to make it through the day. By the time a colleague found me an hour later, I was draped over my desk, green and shaking. While a kind stranger drove me home, a bucket cradled in my lap, I understood that if I didn’t change, I’d be unable to work at all. An emergency hospital visit a few days later confirmed it: the guilt was unsustainable, and so was the trouper mentality.

Nowadays, I manage my pain much more consciously. I have several coping mechanisms I can use while at work, and I know how to ask coworkers for help and support. I take care of myself at home so I can function well at my job, and take the odd sick day without too much dithering about whether I deserve the time. This approach has meant I suffer less pain in the first place, and manage it more successfully when it does come along. My current work environment is a balanced one, and when I go several weeks without a severe pain episode, I feel lucky, not proud. I am not special for not needing sick days as often as some other coworkers do, and I know it.

Abandon the sick day humblebrags, and recognize that illness is not a moral failing. Avoid bringing that nasty flu into the workplace unless you’re positive your coworkers can’t get along without you. Stay home when you can, and strive for real, lasting recovery. If people take sick days around you, reserve judgment. Don’t treat your lack of need for sick leave like a badge of honour. If you have the option of taking paid sick time, coming to work when you’re unwell means you are either very stubborn or very dedicated. It doesn’t necessarily place you above your colleagues.

We’ll all have days when we feel as though taking a day of rest is not an option. We have too much to do. People are depending on us to be present, and we’re confident we can handle the discomfort. I’ve been there, and I’ll be there again. I’m not going to miss a file audit meeting or workshop because my pain is a bit worse than usual. It’s okay to be a trouper, at least some of the time.

But, as we overcome physical limitations to be present, let’s do so with the awareness that staying home is a valid choice, too. Let’s acknowledge there will always be those who abuse the system, without demanding that everyone lose out because of a few bad apples. Let’s stop expecting people to be impressed by a sparkling attendance record. Let’s shift our focus to performance and productivity.

Oh, and let’s take a crack at conquering that sick day guilt. Health is not a sign of strength, and illness is not a sign of weakness.