Monday, February 09, 2009


A few days ago, I had an interesting experience. I carried a cane to work with me. There has been a good deal of ice and snow and slush. I carried the cane more as a preventive measure – to prevent a fall, than because I actually have a bad leg right now. But there have been people in front of our building for some weeks gathering signatures on various petitions – ecology issues, mostly, and they catch law students and faculty as we enter or leave the building. That day, with the cane, I seemed to be invisible to these individuals. It was a very interesting experience. I usually have to duck them.

It has happened to me once before, when I wore a neck brace. A colleague, who knows me enough to ask for library services, completely ignored me at the elevator and would not answer me when I said hello. It was very strange. In both instances, it felt a little like being invisible. I wonder if it is discomfort with a disability in others, or fear of not knowing what to say or how to react, that made people react in such a strange way. I imagine this is a small dose of what a person in a wheelchair or who is blind or has some other striking impairment must run into on a regular basis.

I was thus, all set to blog self-righteously about how it feels to be made invisible. I was recalling how angry I felt as a child to be overlooked as I waited in line to pay for items at a store, and adults were waited on first. I was rolling up a big sermon, full of wrath and fury. But then, I opened the March (how can that be?!) issue of Discover Magazine, and looked at the Brain feature. Sadly, you cannot get the March issue online yet – I will try to remember to link to this article when it becomes available online.

The entire issue is focused on Darwin and his theory of evolution (because it is both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book, On the Origin of Species. The brain column picks up the idea that our aversion to strangers and those who look ill may be an evolutionary adaptation to avoid illness. Our brain has adapted our behavior to avoid infection in the first place, as an improvement over adapting our immune systems to battle bacteria and viruses.

So, in one column, all my outrage has been wiped out by the theory of evolution, wisely adapting to help us avoid smallpox. If I lived before vaccinations, my ill-advised tendency to approach the ill and halt would probably have killed me early, according to this theory. Hmmm. I still think we need to reach out. After all, now we have soap, anti-biotics, vaccinations and other modern health care. We have less excuse for prejudice.


Amy Wright said...

I had to use a cane for two months due to a stress fracture, and my experience was sort of mixed. When I went out anywhere with my husband, people would openly stare at us for uncomfortably long periods of time. But when I was on my own, I was pretty much ignored. Interestingly, I was on crutches for a few weeks before I switched to the cane, and being on crutches didn't seem to invite as much gawking and generated more offers of assistance.

Ms. OPL said...

I found the exact opposite when I was in a cast and on what is called a "knee-walker." People stopped me to ask about it--and how I was and what happened. It was a nice experience.

Anonymous said...

Keep that indignation burning. The more thoughtful evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Steven Pinker) take great pains to emphasize that a behavior with evolutionary advantages is not thereby morally justified.