I’ve been seeing memes online advocating shaming people who aren’t wearing masks. Please don’t.
If you see someone in a store without a mask, talk to the store instead of bothering the customer. There are two reasons why.
First, your bigger problem isn’t the person – it’s the store. What are their procedures? Ask them and find out. If they aren’t doing enough to keep their customers safe, you may sensibly choose not to shop there.
Second, it’s true: The person with no mask may be an able-bodied person who has decided the rules don’t apply to them. But they also might be a disabled person who is doing their best. Harassing them about a mask they’re unable to wear is harmful.
I’m disabled. I can’t wear a mask. If you saw me in public, there’s a lot more to the story you wouldn’t have seen.
You wouldn’t have seen me staying home, alone, trying to avoid people so that when I do go into public without a mask, I’ve minimized the chance that I’ve got any germs to spread. You wouldn’t have seen me making every possible attempt to obtain what I needed online, at curbside, or by delivery.
You wouldn’t have seen the things I simply do without when I can’t get them that way. Did you know that stores that offer curbside pickup or delivery sometimes don’t offer it for every item?
You wouldn’t know I live alone and nobody else could run the errand for me. If I’m in that store, it’s because I couldn’t find a way to avoid it.
You wouldn’t have seen me call the store in advance, explain that I can’t wear a mask because of my disability, and ask what they wanted me to do. You probably didn’t know that I was following their procedures.
Maybe you didn’t notice how much I’m trying to avoid talking or opening my mouth while I’m in the store.
You don’t know how bad I feel every time I have to ask for accommodations just to exist in public spaces. I feel like I’m cheating by asking to play by different rules than everyone else.
You don’t know about the decades I spent going to doctors, getting misdiagnosed, and never getting the treatment I needed. Or the years I spent asking for disability accommodations at work and school or from friends, only for them to treat me like I’m just doing it to inconvenience them.
Between asking for an accommodation and just going home, I’d rather go home. But sometimes there’s stuff I just need to go out and buy.
Having a disability is painful enough without also trying to convince other people you’re telling the truth about it. I know when I go out now that people are looking at me and judging me. They assume I don’t believe in science or I don’t care about their health, and neither is true.
If you can wear a mask, you should. And if you’re spreading fact-free, anti-mask propaganda, you should stop. But please, before you challenge or shame someone who isn’t wearing a mask, consider that they might be disabled. If you’re in a store, talk to someone who works there instead.
Your safety is important. But there’s a more compassionate way to stay safe than bullying a disabled person.
*Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.