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It still hurts, even if you mean well: Disability microaggressions in practice

13 Oct 2021 | Ruth Cawston


Part of BVA’s #BigConversation on microaggressions. Ruth Cawston, co-founder of British Veterinary Chronic Illness Support, tells us about some of the comments which can harm colleagues with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and examples of what you might say instead.

It still hurts, even if you mean well: Disability microaggressions in practice Image

I’m sure that most of us have, at one time or another, properly put our foot in our mouth. Six months into my first job, I managed to express the opinion that it wasn’t very healthy for vets to marry each other (because you’d never get a break from work) in front of my new boss who had, not half an hour previously, introduced me to his wife, an equine vet.

Thankfully, my boss saw the funny side, but sometimes (intentionally or not) we say things that are genuinely hurtful or offensive. These kinds of comments are sometimes called “microaggressions”.

The definition of a microaggression varies, but they usually have two key features:

  1. Microaggressions aren’t loud, angry abuse– they are small things that often goes unnoticed by everyone except those that it affects.
  2. They are often unintended. Unless you are hermit living in a cave, you will almost certainly have said something that has accidentally upset someone. I have. Everyone has. That’s not the same as wanting to hurt or offend someone, but unfortunately it can still have the same effect.

Microaggressions can stem from thoughtlessness, a lack of understanding, or prejudice. Those of us who live with chronic illness and disability often encounter these, and whilst we can try to shrug off one or two of these comments, over time the cumulative effect of thousands of needle pricks can start to wear heavily.

In a good workplace, colleagues should feel able to openly discuss health problems without fear of judgement. But if you’re looking into the world of long-term illness from the outside, try to be considerate and respectful, whether discussing these topics or talking more generally. Thoughtless language can easily be hurtful.

Below are a few examples of common microaggressions, and why they can be upsetting to hear. You will find them all on the BVA poster.

“Wow, I could never deal with that”

I think this is intended as sort of a compliment – “Look at how brave you are, you amazing resilient person”. Unfortunately, that’s not usually how it feels. When you find yourself having to live with a long-term condition, you “cope” because that is the only option available to you – it’s not some amazing life choice, it’s just surviving.  

Saying something like this suggests that you think I am “dealing with it” – that I’m handling it fine, that it’s not a problem, that I’m never overwhelmed by it all. This can feel like you are trying to down-play or dismiss the effects that my health problems are having on my life.

It also implies that the realities of my life are beyond your worst nightmares – that you cannot see a scenario where you would cope with all I have to deal with. This is not a reassuring thing to hear.

Try saying instead, “I’m so sorry you have to deal with that - it sounds difficult.”

“I know someone like you”

I’m afraid you don’t. That’s not me being a diva, just the reality of chronic illness. Everyone’s experience is different – symptoms vary, doctors vary, treatments vary, and peoples’ personal situations (finances, relationships, support networks) also play a big role in our experiences of illness.

Saying something like this implies that you already understand what I’m going through – the extra challenges, large and small, that form part of my life because of my illness. This can make me feel like you are being dismissive or flippant.

If you want to understand what I’m going through, you need to ask me about my own experiences, and then listen to my answers. 

“Ugh, I can't spell. I'm totally dyslexic today”

Dyslexia is a life-long neurodivergence that can cause significant issues in navigating day-to-day tasks that others find easy. You aren’t dyslexic because you’re having trouble reading or spelling on a single day - you might be tired, or have a headache, but that is not the same thing.  

This kind of frivolous comparison is also common with other neurodivergent conditions like OCD or Tourette’s, mental health conditions like depression or bipolar disorder, or physical issues like muscle spasms (“spastic”).

Comparing your “off days” with my condition is another way of dismissing or diminishing it. It’s OK to say that you’re tired, or sore, or feeling down – in fact it’s good to share these things with your team, and it’s good to ask for help when you are feeling like this. But please don’t try and equate these short-term issues with a long-term health condition.

“You don’t look ill/disabled”

This kind of comment implies that there is a certain way that people with long-term health conditions should look. Should we be a bit paler? Or have walking aids? Or cough gently and clutch a handkerchief, like a Victorian girl with tuberculosis?

When someone tells you that you don’t look sick, it can feel like they are passing judgement on your illness. It implies that they think you aren’t ill, or at least not “properly” sick. You might just be a bit of a lightweight.  Have you considered it might all be in your head?

Instead of judging based on our appearance, consider why you think that we don’t look sick. It might be more accurate for you to say, “I sometimes forget what you are living with.”

In summary

None of us are perfect. We will all commit accidental microaggressions from time to time – even those of us who belong to a minority group. But by educating ourselves, and being thoughtful and empathic, we can try and minimise these incidents. And when we do accidentally say the wrong thing, don’t bristle if someone points it out – accept it, learn from it, and move forward.


This blog is part of the BVA #BigConversation on microaggressions. You can download posters to help start the conversation in your workplace, or read our blogs looking at microaggressions related to:


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