When I was a new guide dog traveler some thirty years ago a strange man grabbed me as I was crossing Fifth Avenue in New York. He yanked me forcibly until we reached the far sidewalk and then without a word he ran away. My dog looked up at me as if to say: “Man that was weird!” Now that we’re in the heart of a pandemic I’m wondering how it will be when I finally return to the streets. Can the blind count on people to keep their distance? Guide dogs are trained to navigate around people but they’re not trained to imagine six feet of social distance. At best they use our combined width as navigable space.
A friend who’s autistic tells me that maskless people are triggering his anxieties. I get it. And what about if you can’t see “the other?” Being disabled in public requires that you believe strangers are obeying the law, that they’ll stop for red lights, place fencing around a hole in the pavement, behave with concern. The maskless throngs I’m hearing about scare the heck out of me. I’ve had pneumonia four times and almost died from the so called “Hong Kong” flu in 1969. If I can’t see you coming and you don’t care about my health then being on the street, any street, is an impossibility.
My guide dog can keep me from falling down stairs, stepping into traffic, hitting my head on low hanging branches, can find an escalator or the nearest door. But she can’t save me from the projective cruelty of Fox News addicts who think masks are just a cheap gimmick in the culture wars.
The disabled, blind or not, neurodiverse or not, wheelchair users or not, deaf or not, we need you to take our very survival with the utmost seriousness. This is especially true when it comes to colleges and universities that are now imagining how to reopen. Don’t grab us. Don’t breathe in our faces.
I was horrified to read that Johnny Cash’s granddaughter was verbally assaulted yesterday by a non mask wearing bully. She has a history of pulmonary problems. She’s me. She’s millions of us. Young and old. Overtly disabled or living with things you can’t see. The anti mask movement is essentially saying, “life is cheap.” And also: “I’m so much better than you are, because I don’t believe in facts.”
Here’s a fact: the disabled are the largest minority in the US. Our health matters. The vulgar idea that some lives are easily sacrificed for the “economy” is just repackaged Nazi era eugenics. Hitler said the disabled were useless eaters. The right wing stampede to reopen business without safeguards touts the notion that some lives are less valuable than others. Going maskless is their flag.