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.

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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.

Let’s Hear it for the Small Wins

For me, the most exhausting part of living a disabled life is feeling the calling (or the burden) to educate those around me, and watching my attempts fail to take hold. I’ve been walking this planet for almost a quarter century now, and people I’ve known for most of that time still regularly send me undescribed images and grab me by the wrist when they should be offering an elbow. I make the same mistakes with my own friends and family, asking silly questions and continually messing up when I ought to know better. Time and time again, the universe keeps teaching me that regardless of how many marginalized groups you interact with, there’s no guarantee the lessons you learn will stick with you.

Then, there are the equally frustrating encounters with strangers—for instance, the man who, undeterred by my puffy parka and suit jacket, gripped my arm hard enough to inflict actual pain because he did not trust me to open a door on my own. Even after a swift and firm rebuke on my part—which never gets easier to do, by the way—he followed me around the elevator lobby, either unaware or uncaring that his assistance was not welcome. I can go through this routine a thousand times, and even when people are receptive and apologetic, the stress adds to the daily grind in ways that catch up to me, no matter how hard I try to be philosophical about it.

One down, many thousands to go. How uplifting!

Much is made of the big, sweeping changes, like inclusive hiring policies and game-changing legislation. Too little is made of quiet moments of reflection, advocacy, and individual triumph. It’s easy to get the community fired up about the stranger who grabbed you in the elevator lobby, but a lot harder to get them to rejoice with you when one more person finally “gets it.” Every day, one more taxi driver understands why service dogs should be allowed in his cab. One more teacher accepts that her fear of teaching disabled students is a doorway, not a dead end. One more parent respects a disabled child’s boundaries, as painful as it is to pull back and let go. These small but mighty turning points, the “I never thought of it that way” and “that makes sense now” and “I’m sorry” are happening everywhere, all the time. They don’t change the broken system that is so terribly skewed, but they matter, just the same. From what I’ve observed, so few people are talking about them.

Why not?

Seriously, why are we not doing more to congratulate each other for the ripples we are making? Why are we not doing more to tell others about those ripples in the first place? Maybe they’ll turn into waves, and maybe they won’t, but when’s the last time you stopped to truly appreciate the wins, tiny as they are? I know it’s been too long since I’ve stopped being sad about the times I couldn’t reach a person long enough to think about the times I managed to get through to them. Only now am I beginning to realize this is not the healthiest approach.

It’s discouraging to know that most people will repeat the mistakes we correct. Not everyone, not even most people, will remember your explanations and teachable moments. You have probably forgotten a lot of what you’ve been told over the years about how to treat people the way they’d like to be treated. I’m sure I have. We do our best, but we all slip up, no matter how informed and responsive we become. And, since no one owes us a thing and no one is obligated to educate us on the fly, we may make errors without even knowing it. I have not called out every single person in my life. Not even close. Who has the time?

Here’s the thing, though: we need to let the small wins define our lives as much as the losses. The stranger who asked if I needed help, and respected my wishes when I said no, should be just as significant to me as the person who couldn’t take no for an answer. If I’m willing to berate myself for failing to educate successfully in one instance, why am I not willing to be proud of myself when I do make a difference? Harm always seems more impactful than a neutral or positive experience, but I’m discovering that when we give the wins a little more space and sunlight, they have infinite power. Successful advocacy attempts from years ago are still able to give me solace and strength, just as unsuccessful attempts can still inspire feelings of anger and futility. Why, then, do I so often choose to dwell on anger, when I have so much else to celebrate? And why do I let other people decide whether my advocacy is meaningful?

I don’t have the energy for the level of advocacy I’d need to make the big wins happen—not usually, anyway. I have a busy life to live, and only so many spoons. I don’t have a string of Facebook-worthy successes with which to regale you, and the advocacy I do have time and energy to pursue would seem trivial to a lot of the people I know.

But last Christmas, I held my new nephew for the very first time, totally free of the anxious hovering and concerned muttering I’ve come to expect when I hold someone’s child. The narrative was less “awkward blind girl holding vulnerable baby,” and more “Auntie Meagan falling in love with her gorgeous nephew.”

Last week, my coworker asked if I needed help, then calmly walked away when I said I was doing fine, thanks.

Yesterday, I really did need help, and the person who gave it did not connect that moment of dependence with my competence as a professional. She has probably already forgotten she helped me at all.

Tomorrow, someone will ask me for help, and I’ll think no less of them.

With every day I keep trying to build bridges and promote crucial understanding, with every day I refuse to be permanently discouraged, someone trusts me a little more. Someone learns to better respect my boundaries. Someone promises they will never again grab my arm or lead me by my cane tip or badger me about not wanting a dog. More and more now, I am able to forget, for days at a time, that I was ever on the margins at all.

That’s not nothing.

That is, in fact, everything.

I’m always here for your small wins, just as I am for the times things go wrong. Get in touch, because as the ancient proverb goes, a shared joy is doubled, but a shared sorrow is halved.

Skills, Skills, Skills

For most people, skills are associated with employment, sports, and the arts. Unless we’re talking about early childhood development, few people think of cutting a steak or crossing a street as a “skill.” The era of lifehacks and “you’ve been doing these basic things wrong your whole life” articles is slowly changing that, but for the most part, nondisabled people don’t waste much time fretting over life skills. Surely such a term is too lofty for the everyday minutiae of life? Being highly-skilled implies specialization and, if you’re lucky, acclaim.

In the disabled world, the landscape can look quite different, in the realms of socialization and daily living. My writing and editing skills win me a fair bit of respect, for example, but what nondisabled people don’t realize is that I find travelling infinitely more demanding than writing, and spend almost as much time agonizing over the way I navigate my city as I do about the key messages I write every day.

Why do I spend so much time worrying? It’s not about safety or quality of life, so much: I know enough to function, and I’m getting better at asking for help. No, the bulk of the anxiety comes from the blind community’s obsession with skills. I call it “skillification,” where every minute task a blind person struggles with turns into a conversation about skills and methods and philosophies. A simple thread about knife technique can morph into a bloody civil war, as people scramble over each other to be heard, especially online. This commenter thinks there’s only one right way to use a knife. That one believes disabled people shouldn’t use knives—do you know how dangerous knives can be? A third thinks people should just do whatever comes naturally, and damn the textbook approaches. Another admits that he just gets his mom to do it. Someone else is squalling because blind people are so pathetic these days. At one point, somebody will probably mention American training centres, prompting someone else to start grousing about the NFB or the ACB or the IDB–insert alphabet soup here. Meanwhile, the unwitting author of this conflict just wants some tips on chopping the freakin’ onion.

Whenever I watch this play out, I always think the same thing to myself: “You had one job, blind community. Your job was to answer this person’s question as best you could, and you turned the whole topic into a judgmental philosophy discussion. You blew it. Well done.”

Don’t get me wrong; skills training is just about essential for any blind person who wants to live a reasonably independent life. In some senses at least, I wish I’d had more specialized education growing up, and I wish the focus of what I did receive had been more practical. But when complete strangers feel comfortable critiquing not only my methods but also my self-respect, the whole thing starts to feel a tiny bit absurd.

If you seek them out, you’ll find highly-trained professionals who will teach blind people the “proper” way to plug in a kettle or slice a banana. Books have been written about how to help blind people dress and groom themselves. I vividly remember a pamphlet my parents were given that featured a multi-step process for pouring milk. (Yes, it was that specific.) These resources can be handy, and I certainly appreciate experts who give on-the-ground advice, but the degree of dogma surrounding the precise methods people use to perform the most basic tasks is unnerving.

I believe all blind people should have access to skills training, and the freedom to explore alternatives. For people experiencing vision loss, relearning just about everything they already know how to do is a huge challenge, and they deserve to have help along the way. There is nothing wrong with excelling at “blinding,” as I like to call it, and skills gaps in areas like travel and etiquette can take a massive toll on quality of life.

I do, however, believe it may be time for the community to re-examine the way it perpetuates “skillification,” and how it can cause unnecessary shame and stress for people who are beginning to lose their vision, or who have never received much assistance in childhood. Generally speaking, the “official” ways in which blindness skills are taught vary widely, and there’s a lot to be said for finding what works for you and sticking to it. There’s also a lot to be said for being less willing to compare blind people to each other without accounting for the many other factors that influence a person’s adulting skills. I know plenty of sighted people who can barely use a microwave, but no one is sending them to a training centre.

In short, friends, do your thing, and do it in the way that makes the most sense for you. Do it safely, and do it well if it’s something that means a lot to you. Help others improve, if that’s what they want. Consider the skills that will help you attain your goals, and find ways to cultivate them. (Want to be invited to those business lunches? Better polish those table manners.) Before deciding something isn’t worth learning, understand the consequences of going without that skillset.

But if you have no interest in proper technique for serving five-course meals? If your preferred method for cracking eggs differs from the one your blind friend uses? If you never received official independent living skills instruction on how to bake a cake, but your cakes are no less delicious for it?

Well, then, don’t let the squabbling hordes get you down. You’re probably doing just fine.

We, the Persons

It happens more often than you’d think. I’m scrolling through a piece of writing relating to policy or human rights, and I see it: “persons with disabilities.” It’s not something I find in much mainstream writing, but in the non-profit and government worlds, it’s ubiquitous. Though I’ve come to expect it, it always stands out to me in the most distracting way. It conjures other phrases, like “persons unknown” or “persons of interest.” It’s clinical and cold. It feels archaic and, especially outside the context of law, dehumanizing.

It seems like everyone else gets to hang out at what passes for the cool table, under the “people” umbrella. (Boy, that bar is high.) We don’t typically talk about persons of colour, or LGBTQ+ persons, or persons with low incomes. Governments don’t commit to supporting “working persons.” Politicians don’t address the “persons of this great country.” Democracy is not “by the persons, for the persons.” That would sound odd, if not incorrect. At best, it would be out of place, and give people pause.

I’m not usually a splitter of hairs when it comes to small linguistic details, unless I’m wearing my editor’s hat. I tend to think that while language has immense power, the sky isn’t likely to fall if someone refers to me as, say, “visually disabled” versus “visually impaired.” I may have a preference, but it’s a personal one, unlikely to inspire whole blog posts. You say tomato, I say “Who cares?”

There is something about “persons with disabilities” that continues to annoy, no matter how many times I come across it. Unearthing the phrase buried in legislation is one thing, but when I see it in a recent piece of writing, I can’t help but shake my head. Why haven’t we joined everyone else? Why have we yet to gain full “people” status? Why are we still being referenced, in a surprising number of documents, using a term that is jarring and isolating for no good reason? Are we destined always to remain in a medicalized category of our own, somewhere just to the south of “people?”

It really is a very minor detail, I know. Most people will look at “persons with disabilities” and not even notice the strangeness of it. Others will notice, and not care. I’m sure many people with disabilities (see what I did there?) will read this and shrug. There are bigger fish to fry, certainly–more important quibbles to discuss, definitely.

But my favourite thing about minor details is that they are so simple to fix. The complex issues are hard to solve, and I’m in no position to do much about any of them. What I can do is make sure “persons with disabilities” never creeps into my own writing. I can encourage my clients and coworkers to start thinking of us, and representing us, as a group of people much like every other. I can point out how bizarre it is to cling to such an outdated term, and hope that it will one day become a rare one.

If you’d like to see “persons” with disabilities become a relic of a society that really did view disabled people as less-than, instead of a phrase we cling to with bewildering obstinacy, you might consider joining me in this modest quest. I’d be more than happy to hear about your progress, pushback and all.

Wait!

“What’s it like, being disabled? As in, day to day?”

For a long time, this question stymied me. I had no frame of reference, no way to start with “normal” and paint a picture of what “abnormal” might look like. I could describe specific obstacles, particular incidents, but I had no sweeping, instantly relatable analogy–no lens to capture what this life is like when it’s the only reality I’ve ever known.

Many have taken a crack at this tough little nut, and come up with innovative ideas along the way. Being disabled, some say, is like playing a video game on the highest difficulty setting. Others say it’s like navigating an obstacle course while everyone else uses a sidewalk. Some of us resort to hiking metaphors. Your path is wide and smooth; mine is a rocky, treacherous trailblaze of a life, which manages to be as hard as people assume, and at the same time, much easier.

It was not until I stood on a slushy street corner, waiting for an unusually long light to change, that it hit me. I had found my personal metaphor, and it was one that covered an astonishing amount of ground in the simplest way.

Being disabled, I realized, is a lot of standing on the corner, waiting for the world to decide that it’s safe for you to cross. My life as a disabled person involves a lot of standing still, watching cars fly freely by, wondering when the light will turn green long enough for me to make some headway. Since the system is more complicated than I can wrap my head around, and there’s no handy countdown, I have no clear idea when that might happen. So I wait, getting increasingly cold and impatient, for a path forward. Some days, it feels as though the world is filled with cars, and I am the only pedestrian in sight. They are roaring along while I walk and wait, walk and wait.

I wait for accommodations to be put in place. I wait for my paratransit ride to show up. I wait for technology that promises to save me. I wait for people to decide I’ve proven myself worthy. I wait for attitudes to change, for fears to be calmed, for unreasonable limits to be stretched. I wait for accessible products in a world where nothing is designed for me—nothing I can afford, anyway. I wait, sometimes quietly, more often restlessly, for the world to make room for me.

Then, when the waiting becomes too much for me, I try to jaywalk. I barge right into the unsafe spaces, the heavy traffic, the uncharted territory. I might get a warning or a slap on the wrist or even an angry honk from someone’s horn; occasionally, I retreat to my corner, chastened. I am foolish and fragile. I must be protected from myself, and from shadowy figures who would exploit me. I must be patient. I must be understanding. I must realize that change doesn’t happen overnight. I must not ask how long this light will stay resolutely red. I must not point out that everyone else seems to be cruising while I am plodding.

All in good time. Soon enough. Someday, if you go the extra mile.

Walk and wait.

Every now and again, that light turns green and I make real progress. Barriers are overcome, and my journey picks up speed. Life comes so easily that I have time to forget, if only for a few moments, that I was ever a lowly pedestrian in a dangerous network of drivers. The reprieve might even be long enough for me to point at other unlucky foot travelers, and to wonder loudly what they’ve done–or left undone—to leave themselves stranded at the corner.

Inevitably, that light turns red again, and I remember what it is to stand still, thwarted by incompatible software or a narrow-minded employer or a skills gap. There’s always something, and that something brings me back to the corner, where others can gawk at my inactivity and imagine how I brought it on myself. And it’s back to the waiting game.

With too much prodding, the metaphor falls apart, as so many of them do. Living as a disabled person is typically far less passive and futile than this framework would suggest. There is worthwhile work I can do while I stand on that corner. I am not a helpless victim of a static system, and I can certainly jaywalk if I wish, with the result likely to be rather tamer than death. Disapproval and societal exclusion aren’t quite as dramatic as an altercation with a speeding car, and I’m seeing genuine, lasting steps forward all around me. I am more welcome, more respected than I have ever been, and it’s not all down to my own advocacy.

Nevertheless, I use this comparison because it explains why the hurry-up-and-wait nature of living with a disability is so interminably frustrating. While my every success feels hard-won and snail-pace slow, my nondisabled peers seem to sail through most challenges, hitting so many green lights they don’t even notice I’ve fallen behind. For them, a red light is an inconvenience, not a brick wall, and no one is telling them to take those red lights gracefully. Meanwhile, I’m reminded to be grateful I’m allowed to cross at all. Commonly enough, the criticism comes from fellow disabled people, who are quick to condemn and still quicker to remind me that it could be worse.

I work toward a world in which I’m not always suspended in mid-stride, waiting for something to change or improve or move out of my way. I hope the next generations will know less and less of what it is to fall behind not because they are moving too slowly, but because the rest of the world hasn’t caught up. As I anticipate the birth of my first niece/nephew, I wish with all my heart that should they face barriers similar to mine, they will not need to be so patient and gracious and grateful. And I hope that, when the time comes to jaywalk, to break the rules and challenge the status quo, they will have the courage to do it, and the good fortune to emerge triumphant.

If you ask me, that future is definitely worth waiting for–but sooner rather than later, please.

Enough With the Sick Day Humblebrags

All my life, I’ve been surrounded—some might say afflicted—by troopers. 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 trooper.

The trooper’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 trooper 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 troopers 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 trooper 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 trooper, 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.