microaggressions, macroaggressions and disability

word cloud saying: microaggressions macroaggressions special special~needs short~bus stupid crazy psycho OCD incompetent are~you~deaf capable amazing super~hero perseverate quiet~hands spaz spastic slow~learner out~of~control inspiring what~happened~to~you what's~wrong~with~her when~are~you~getting~better wheelchair~bound confined~to~a~wheelchair I~don't~think~of~you~as~disabled but~you~look~so~good you~don't~look~disabled what's~wrong~with~her non~compliant dependent splinter~skills handicapped inspiring hope cure inaccessible you~are~inspiring you~are~amazing you~are~capable grandfathered~in How~fast~does~that~thing~go Want~to~race? Can~I~hitch~a~ride Do~you~have~a~license~to~drive~that~thing handicapable low~functioning high~functioningAs a queer disabled woman, I experience both macro and micro aggressions on a regular basis.  Microaggressions are behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent but which nevertheless can inflict insult or injury. Each time we hear these things, they are like a little jab to our souls.  They serve to remind us that we are less than the micro-aggressor.  Over time, they take a stifling toll on each of us.  Every time someone chooses to interact with me by just making a comment like “Want to race? or “You drive that thing well.” I am reminded that I am seen for my disability first, and the person interacting with me, while trying to be polite, is unable to see past my disability in any way when interacting with me.

Macro aggressions are, on the other hand, are actions that  are meant to exclude, either by action or omission. Not complying with disability rights laws is a macro aggression.  The Americans with Disabilities Act has been law for more than 25 years, the Fair Housing Act for more than 27, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for  more than 40 years, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation has been law for more than 42 years.  At this point, decades after all these laws were passed, any failure to comply is either a willful attempt to evade the law, or due to willful ignorance.

Avoiding microaggressions is not a matter of political correctness, but rather constructive engagement of differences.  It is in part a function of being polite, and being cognizant of how one’s words affect others.  It is, not an attempt at totalitarianism, but instead a way to connect with others — particularly others who are different from oneself —  in ways that affirm the importance of relationships. Avoiding macroaggressions is all of the above, plus complying with the law.

I was recently asked to give some examples of the macro and micro aggressions I face on a daily, weekly, and  monthly basis.  Here are twenty of each experienced recently or regularly.


  • Telling a disabled person “you are so inspiring/amazing/capable” (sometimes in combination) — usually while doing mundane things like buying dog food, or pushing my daughter’s wheelchair
  • Telling a wheelchair user “you drive that thing well” referring to my wheelchair (also “How fast does that thing go,” “Want to race,” “Can I hitch a ride,” Do you have a license  to drive that thing,” “You need a backup beeper on that thing.”)
  • Using the accessible restroom stall when you are physically capable of using the non-accessible stalls without pain or risk of injury.
  • Talking very slooowwwllly to me or my children
  • Asking my attendants what I want to order in a restaurant
  • Using baby talk with my 25 and 16 year olds
  • Refusing to repeat oneself when I am unable to understand them
  • Saying “What are you deaf?” when I don’t understand what they are saying
  • Sighing and complaining when behind my daughter driving her wheelchair slowly
  • Asking “what’s wrong with her?” when referring to my daughter
  • Revving your engine and honking your horn when I cross the street
  • Telling me “I could never do all you do” (referring to the fact that I work, am raising children, and am slightly active in my community — a task millions of American women do)
  • Asking a disabled person “Do you know [random disabled individual in some distant city]?”
  • Saying “She’s so high/low functioning”
  • Saying “I don’t even think of you as disabled”
  • Wearing scented body products in areas labeled as scent free
  • Complaining about having to accommodate another child’s nut allergy
  • Calling a situation “retarded”
  • Telling a wheelchair user their chair takes up too much space or is in the way
  • Complaining about how long it takes to deploy the wheelchair lift on a city bus



  • Spending tens of thousands of dollars to modify a building for a new business, but not adding a ramp for the single step into the building.
  • Holding bar association meetings in the inaccessible homes of members.
  • Parking illegally in an accessible parking space — even if just for a minute
  • Blocking access to accessible restrooms with mops, trash cans, and other debris.
  • Narrow store aisles, or placing displays in store aisles blocking access
  • Building websites that are inaccessible to people who use screen readers
  • Refusing to provide wheelchair access claiming “We are grandfathered in.”
  • Calling a person “retarded”
  • Questioning my little person adult daughter’s ability to order a drink, even when she provides her ID
  • Building restaurants with only high tables, or seating areas up a step
  • Not having the lowered customer service counter open in a store
  • Refusing to allow a disabled person to make access modifications to her home
  • Refusing to allow a service animal in a vacation rental
  • Refusing to provide sign language interpreters for attorney-client meetings
  • Refusing to allow wheelchair users to fly on an airplane
  • Not maintaining wheelchair lifts on buses
  • Protesting a group home being opened in your neighborhood
  • Not having captions in a movie theater
  • Broken automatic door buttons
  • Segregating disabled students to “special schools.”


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  1. People who suffer from claustrophobia and who cannot normally manage the small booths of public lavatories are sometimes able to use the handicap facilities as they are usually more spacious. Not all handicaps are visible.

  2. OK So the restroom stall thing. The accessible restrooms/stalls exist so that people with disabilities who can’t fit into standard tiny stalls CAN use the bathroom. They are not there solely for disabled people (or people with babies needing diaper change, as the table is often in the accessible stall). They are there for everyone, period, with a priority of people who need to use the additional features.

    Obviously able bodied people or people who don’t have to change diapers should do their more time-consuming business in a small stall, so as not to tie it up unnecessarily.

    If there’s a line, and no one is in specific need of the accessible stall, those people just use whatever one opens up in the order that people leave them. If someone comes in who needs to change a diaper or who physically needs to use the accessible restroom/stall – then yes, they jump to the next in line for that specific stall.

  3. The issue is that many disabled people cannot use any other stall due to their disability. I am not talking about times when all the stalls are full and the accessible stall gets used. I am talking about times when I go into an otherwise empty restroom, and all the stalls are empty, and a person is changing from their running gear into their work clothes in the accessible stall, for example. That person is more than capable of using any other stall. I am on a short 15 minute break from work, and am unable to use the restroom — whatsoever — until the next break. If a person can use the inaccessible stall, they should. I am not saying it is intentional discrimination, but discrimination it is. All the other attorneys, judges, and parties that I work with can count on being able to go to the bathroom during a break. They have multiple restroom options, and multiple stall options. I have one — one in the entire building.

    Yes not all disabilities are visible (and I have invisible disabilities that impact me daily, as well as my more visible disabilities), and many people have many disability related reasons for needing to use the accessible stall. That said, if a person would use an inaccessible stall if the accessible stall is occupied, why not use it all the time, or certainly don’t use the accessible stall for time consuming activities such as bathrooming multiple small children, changing clothes, and the like.

    It is always a problem when the baby changing table is located in the accessible stall. They are rarely positioned such that a disabled parent can use them, and they keep the accessible stalls unavailable for people who have no other option.

    I get only one option. Others have many. Why do people have such privilege that they can’t fathom leaving that one accessibles stall for people who have no other choice. Disabled people are often relegated to fighting it out for one option (e.g. one van accessible parking space, one accessible restroom stall, one accessible table in a restaurant). The law only presumes a physically disabled person socializing with able bodied people only. Accessible seating in theaters and stadiums often have one accessible seat, flanked by non-moveable inaccessible seats. Fast food restaurants have a single accessible table, with only one seating location that is accessible. Campgrounds have only one accessible camp site, and so on and so forth. These are the microaggressions we face daily that continually reinforce our status as a person who deemed less worthy by society.

  4. A great article and explanation of the territory here. I find the lists great too, because it shows the sheer volume and diversity of the micro and macro aggressions that disabled folks face, often daily. I think it is important for the great population to realize that when someone flags certain behaviours as problematic — ableism, racism, sexism, and the things described in this article — it is not just a ‘small thing’ that happens ‘now and then’; it is often a daily experience for them. And as you point out…. it can really add up and wear on the person who has to endure it (!).
    Lastly I have to add that I find it sad that on an article that is trying to raise awareness, empathy and positive action on a serious issue faced by disabled folks…. the two comments people have posted seem to be arguementative. What’s up with that? I live with a (currently) invisible disability, and yet never for a second did I think Ms. Lucas was excluding those with invisible disabilities re: the bathroom stall. And as for the second comment, again…why the argumentative tone? Are able-bodied folks really that hard done by that they need to “fight” for their rights to use the disabled stall? Obviously Ms Lucas can respond to whatever she wants to here and is not infallable either, but this point didnt see, to merit her having to defense herself here. The overall point of the article speaks clearly enough… it’s just sad that not everyone is listening. Great article! Although I’m not in a wheelchair, the micro aggressions thing is crazy-makig sometimes (and most people simply do not even believe that the macro aggressions actually happen!) 😉

  5. My disabilities are invisible – but I need to use a cane when I walk outside. And I get asked about it. Daily. DAILY. I have cancer and tumors all over, particularly on my knees, foot and lower spinal column. I have a short leg and I’m blind in one eye. ALL of that affects my ability to walk or stand. But I look normal. What happened to your foot/leg (cancer)? Did you get hurt (cancer)? That’s just a prop, right (nope, you a-hole)? You’re young, you’ll heal (just stop). Etc. I cannot fathom why people think they have the right to ask… Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman in my 30s – I’ve never, ever seen a man get asked about his cane. I’ve had a couple of friends liken it to their pregnancies, when complete strangers seem to think it’s totally fine to touch their bellies and ask personal questions. Ugh.