Chally at Zero at the Bone has a post up about invisible identities and the effects of passing. Passing is the active or passive quality that gets people in minority groups to be perceived as part of the dominant group. Examples would be someone with an invisible disability being passed for abled, someone in a racial minority being perceived as white (in a whitecentric society, of course) and someone who is trans or non-binary being perceived as having a cis gender identity.
Because I belong to the dominant group in many of these areas, the only situation in which passing is relevant for me, is disability. In my experience, it does not involve passing for abled entirely, but passing for less disabled than I am. This means that I at once still faced some disablism, and escaped a hell of a lot of it that I would encounter once no longer passing.
Passing is a complicated matter, and, when it is “imcomplete”, it gets even more complicated. Passing for partially sighted when you are blind, for example, gives you just enough sighted privilege to be excluded from or treated like a supercrip by the blind community, but not enough sighted privilege to be even conditionally fully included in the sighted community. It has an advantage in the blind community, where the hierarchy of vision rules. I, apparently, at one point eagerly participated in the competition of sight, although I never made it high on the hierarchical ladder. I would have to consider this a form of internal disablism, and it includes the same sterotyping, marginalizing and exclusionary practices that all people perceived as disabled face from a dominantly abled society, and the same privileges awarded to people who successfully pass for whatever is deemed the “standard” within this disability group. Among the blind, this depends on which exact community you participate in: in certain blind organizations, the totally blind, especially if they have superblind qualities (ie. perfect mastery of alternative techniques and/or fabulous accomplishments), stand highest in the hierarchy, while at my former schools for the blind and at the rehabilitation center I attended, those with the most vision were always dominant.
Within the field of disability, people who have one disability are also privileged over those who have multiple disabilities, and, again, passing awards you privilege. There is, in this sense, again a lot of internal disablism, with some of it motivated by malice, some more by inconvenience (“We don’t have enough time to advocate for people with multiple disabilities.”), and some stemming from ignorance about the reality of people outside one’s own narrow scope of specific, single disability. Before any singly-disabled person objects that they aren’t the Big Bad Oppressor, I’m not saying that. In fact, I myself at least used to be guilty of this same form of disablism, in some pretty nasty ways, such as my bullying a girl with visual and intellectual impairment for her “dumbness” in elementary school, and I’m likely still affected by stereotypes.
However, let’s face facts: advocacy groups of disabled people tend to focus on people with a specific disability, thereby being more successful in fighting for barrier removal for and against discrimination of people with that specific disability, sometimes on a conditional premise that people with that disability can accomplish the same achievements as non-disabled people if given proper training and opportunity. This premise, of course, excludes people who do not meet these standards, which are more likely to be people with multiple disabilities. But even if a disability advocacy group does not set exclusionist standards for representation, people with multiple disabilities will still have a harder time being heard, simply because they make up a minority within the minority. That way, disablism rooted in ignorance may occur: the advocacy group simply didn’t think of advocating for the needs of people with multiple disabilities, or lacked the resources to know how to advocate appropriately. Therefore, barriers are kept in place that may have been struck down for those in the single-disability movements.
Passing helps a lot in such circumstances. For example, I would never have graduated from, and may not have been accepted at my high school if I weren’t passing for neurotypical. Inclusion, at the time, was voluntary in the Netherlands, and even now that there is legislation promoting it, those who are somehow “too difficult” can still be excluded. I bet a dual disability of blindness and autism falls under the category of “too difficult”, but because I passed for neurotypical, I was accepted. In this sense, passing has its advantages.
Like in any other situation where passing is involved, however, it has its flip side, too: the privilege awarded to those who are passing, is conditional. You will only be privileged as long as you pass. This puts a huge burden on the person who is passing: if they no longer pass, they will not only lose the benefits their passing privilege awarded them, but they also run a risk of being shamed, blamed and offended for no longer passing, even if they never made a choice not to try to pass anymore (or if they’d never been trying to pass in the first place, but had been passed by others anyway). For example, when I passed for neurotypical, this was seen as a good thing by non-disabled people (and most blind people), and increasingly having been unable to pass has led some people to be pretty hostile towards the fact that I’m not “just blind”. This started long before my autism diagnosis, by the way, sometime around 2003, but the autism diagnosis, and the fact that I embrace autism as part of my identity, hasn’t helped. Maybe, of course, I would’ve been better off if I had equally embraced my autism but hadn’t been institutionalized. I am not sure about that though, since the people who now despise my autistic identity, did so when I still lived on my own, too.
Related to the blaming of people who used to be passing but no longer do, is the assumption that passing or not passing is always something intrinsic to the person’s own characteristics or choice: either your disability has gotten worse so you can no longer pass (for example, if you start using a low vision aid because you can no longer read the newspaper without it), or you have chosen not to pass anymore. The first is usually more acceptable than the second, although which is which cannot often be objectively assessed. For example, if someone gets a terrible headache and eye fatigue from reading the newspaper without a low vision aid and it takes them twice as long, this could be perceived as either a matter of the visual impairment becoming worse, or as a willful choice not to put effort into reading newspapers. However, as Chally also points out, this view of passing as internally generated fails to acknowledge the fact that it’s the non-disabled people who decide what passes you. For example, if you visibly struggle to read the newspaper but are not using a low vision aid, some people may think you are visually impaired, but some may also think you are just a slow reader, forgot your reading glasses or need a new prescription (and the need for reading glasses is not usually perceived as a disability), or even that you are willfully annoying them by readind the paper that slowly. Some people may not perceive someone who uses a low vision aid as visually impaired, while some may recognize the device and decide that the person must be visually impaired since they are using it. This subjective view of what is and is not perceived as a sign of disability, is even more prominent when talking about mental or neurological disabilities or invisible chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia. Pain may not be seen, if the person is trying not to complain, and even if it is seen, people may automatically attribute it to the wrong causes, or assume the person is exaggerating. Autistic behavior may be viewed as a sign of disability, as a sign of wanting to annoy other people, as “just weird”, or as something indicative of a presumably positive trait, like perseverance or intelligence. These attributions are not inherent in the person’s level of disability or the disabled person’s choice to pass or not to pass. They are other people making these attributions, after all. The disabled person passes because somene else perceives them as non-disabed, not because they themselves wear a sign that reads “I Am Not Disabled”.