woman sitting on gang chair beside window

The Unedited Truth About ‘Passing’ With An Invisible Disability

On the train the other day, a man sat next to me, stared at my service dog, and said, “You don’t look blind or retarded. What’s wrong with you?”

This was, unfortunately, not shocking.

“Are you circumcised?” I asked.

He floundered. “What the hell? Why would you ask that?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought we were sharing intimate details from our medical histories.”

He left to find a different seat.

Most people who ask about my dog are more polite (and, in turn, so am I), but their questions establish the same key things: 1. I don’t look like I need an assistance dog (the implication being that all disabled people should be visibly identifiable), and 2. They feel entitled to know why I need the dog since I have committed the embarrassing faux pas of not being visibly disabled aside from the presence of a handsome shepherd in a medical vest. I am broken in a way that is gestured to but unexplicit. I am, therefore, a spectacle worth investigating.

My dog is a dual purpose service animal: allergen alert and psychiatric response. I usually only tell people the former when they ask (and oh, do they ask), which always leaves me feeling some type of way. As a staunch advocate for destigmatizing mental illness, I know it’s hypocritical to leave out the half of my dog’s purpose that might facilitate this goal. Am I not obligated to practice what I preach to my seminar classrooms full of bright-eyed college freshmen? But it’s also taxing to tell strangers daily, sometimes multiple times a day, that in addition to severe food allergies, I struggle with occasionally debilitating, obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders; that despite being a grown woman with a graduate degree and a stock profile and all the trappings of successful adulthood, sometimes the only thing keeping me functional is 60 pounds of well-trained Canis familiaris.

Participating in this daily practice of one-sided intimacy is exhausting.

However, I’m privileged to have the choice of whether or not I participate.

Every time I leave the house, I decide whether people will be aware of my disability. I determine if I’m feeling up to dealing with the seemingly ubiquitous social entitlement that comes with being visibly other. If I leave my dog at home, I pass as “normal.” I maintain my privacy and autonomy. No one leans in to whisper in my ear to see if I can hear them; no one waves their hand in front of my eyes to determine if I can see them; no one grabs my arm to “help” me up stairs; no one loudly speculates to their friend whether I’m “faking for attention,” and no one, not once, stops me in the dairy aisle to ask, ”What’s wrong with you?” I do not have to engage in conversations about my physical and mental health with strangers. I’m not a spectacle. I’m just a person buying groceries.

The concept of “passing” was introduced to the scholarly world by Nella Larson in her 1929 book of the same title that considered Black individuals who could “pass” as white. The idea has since been coopted to discuss social and identity constructs related to race, sex, gender, religion, disability, and more. Indeed, there is a global history of eugenic anxiety that directly correlates to the stigma of passing—to those who would intentionally or otherwise move outside the cultural boundaries allocated to them. As a conventionally attractive, middle-class white woman who, with minimal effort, passes as both straight and able-bodied, I only have to deal with a small piece of this history when I leave the house with my dog. But even that small piece is onerous.

Over the last five years, I’ve been asked, “What’s wrong with you?” in one form or another, on a near-daily basis. I’m not saying I’ve started to develop a complex about it, but in answering the question, I, by default, must reiterate over and over again that yes, there is something wrong with me. Yes, I need an animal to help me function. I know it’s an inconvenience that ordinary people must accommodate, and social economy dictates that I owe you an explanation for the hassle.

Oddly, it seems that, for most people, my food allergies exist somewhere in the amorphous place between “normal” and “broken” that is not just publicly acceptable but somehow also endearing. Avoiding anaphylaxis is the manic pixie dream girl of service dog tasks. The number of times I’ve had a stranger ask me out after I’ve just explained that my dog prevents me from accidentally poisoning myself is frankly bewildering. Oddly, not once has someone similarly extended a dinner invitation after I’ve added that my dog also performs psychiatric tasks.

In effect, I can choose to enact two different kinds of passing on a day-to-day basis. If I’m not planning to eat, I can elect to leave my dog at home. If I do bring my dog, I can elect only to mention his allergen alert tasks when a stranger enquires after my deficiencies. I can construct the world’s perception of me with these choices. When I choose a comfortable construction, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. When I choose a difficult construction, I commit myself to often unreturned emotional labor and, on occasion, painful judgment.

I suppose I am still thankful for the choice, though. Many people are not afforded the luxury of deciding whether or not they will be a spectacle today.

Erica is a professor of English at Western Colorado University

Keep up with Erica on Instagram