Recently I read the novel “Passin'” by Karen Quinones Miller. It’s the story of an African American woman who looks white and because of that, is not hired for a job designated for a “black” person. Under another name and without mention of race, she applies for a similar job, is hired, and continues to “pass.”
While about race, it touched upon many issues I find interesting and relevant to disability such as what constitutes passing, the tangled relationship it creates with ones group status and personal identity, and the emotional consequences of actively hiding an aspect of oneself.
First, we need some clarification of terms. Passing involves not just actively concealing identifiers of group status but intentionally taking on characteristics of the majority group in order to appear to be a member of that group. While many people might cover up telling traits, concealment is not sufficient to constitute passing. The person must actively try to be perceived as a member of the majority culture.
These days being mistaken for sighted is a common experience for me. Though I do nothing to cause it, I unintentionally pass all the time, which boils down to normative bias. People presume I’m like everyone else, thus sighted. Unless I actively indicate my status by word, deed, or use of a cane, visual impairment does not enter the realm of possibility for consideration.
While I abhor normative bias in part because it strips away my identity, I sometimes actually benefit from the assumption, especially socially. On an airplane, a fellow child traveler was friendly up until she showed me a picture I had to explain I couldn’t see. Like with adults who suddenly figure it out, her manner morphed into awkwardness. Nothing about me changed, yet everything changed reinforcing the fact that disability has significant social impact. Each time this happens, it is disheartening.
Unlike my discomfort with even unintentional passing, the novel’s main character went to great lengths in order to hide her race. She wore nothing “ethnic,” did not cook or eat “soul” food, did not express musical preferences, and eschewed “black” neighborhoods. Taking it further, she adopted the preferences and styles of “white” culture. She even refused to recognize a black relative when approached in public.
The author made it clear that passing is frowned upon within the African American community akin to lying. The dominant white culture was portrayed with more ambiguity, but I had the sense that the behavior was not encouraged.
In start contrast, the way mainstream society thinks about passing in relation to disability is far different. In fact, it’s encouraged. “You move so naturally that I couldn’t tell you were blind” is meant as a compliment. The more I look like the majority culture, behave like them, and keep quiet about my disability-related needs, the more TABsseem to like it. Even when my disability status is known, I am praised for how much I do not behave like a blind person, offering more proof that passing as non-disabled is admirable.
The discomfort shown when my disability status becomes a known issue goes beyond what the female protagonist encountered. While people get “weird” in both cases, I often sense something deeper than unconscious prejudice. I hypothesize it is about existential fear – TABs worried about becoming me. There is also an element of concern over being burdened with helpless me. I represent people’s worst fear and sucking demand on their precious time, neither of which racial difference represents. Furthermore, while racial or ethnic difference is considered human variation, disability is considered human defect.
So why don’t I pass and enjoy the perks that can come with it? My mommy taught me not to lie was the answer when I was a kid. Now it’s more about a refusal to deny who and what I am. I am thinking about trying to pass, though, just to see what happens and to test my ability to do it. How long can I go without mentioning disability? I’ll let you know.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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