“You Have to Prove it!”: Aggressions Toward a Disabled Person Trying to Buy Groceries

Since March, we have increased our free resources by offering online chat groups Monday through Friday as an effort to combat the social isolation that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.  Many of our group members have discussed the sensory issues surrounding wearing face masks and the stress and worry about having to prove their disability in order to receive accommodations.  This has been a main topic of conversation among our membership.  As case in point, the following post was written by a GRASP Team member;

“I often say that I am allergic to everything.  Even though it may not technically be true, it certainly feels that way at times.  I am so allergic to so many things that I have to bring my own soap everywhere because most all soap makes my skin breakout into hives or blisters.  So, I am used to advocating for myself in situations where they may be potential allergens or chemicals that may cause an issue.

When the county where I live currently mandated due to COVID-19 that all stores needed to provide hand sanitizer or an alternative place to wash hands upon entering, I knew that I would have to advocate for myself each time that I went into a store for any reason.  Even though this is entirely exhausting to have to do, I speak up each time so that I can have the same access to stores as everyone else.  For the past several weeks, most employees are very accommodating and nice about it.  Some even say that they are sorry I have the problem, that I should just wash my hands in the bathroom, or that I can have a pair of gloves to wear.  However, that changed when I went to our local Target store. 

As I have done for countless weeks, months, and years, I went to the Target store to buy household items and groceries for my family.  Yesterday, I had a completely different and upsetting experience.  At the entrance to the store, an employee stands as each customer enters to make sure each one has a face mask and uses hand sanitizer.  As I have done many times, even in this store, I explained to the staff member that I was allergic to everything as was unable to use the offered hand sanitizer.  The staff member questioned me about being allergic to everything.  I stopped and turned to her and explained that I have a medical condition, in addition to my disability, which makes it so I can’t use the sanitizer; meanwhile, a line is forming behind me out of the front doors.  I began to walk forward and, before I had the chance to say that I was going to use the bathrooms to wash my hands, which is part of the county mandate, she said the dreaded words, “You have to prove it!” 

I was floored.  I couldn’t believe that I was in a position, in public surrounded by a large group of strangers, to have to explain my disability and “prove it.”  How does one even prove that?  At that point, I turned around and said that I could prove it.  I pulled out my Medicare card and explained to her what my disability was and my specific medical diagnoses.  And, although it didn’t exactly prove my allergy at the time, I did prove that I wasn’t lying.  I didn’t want to do that.  I shouldn’t have had to do that.  But, here I was explaining my personal information to a stranger so that I could spend my hard-earned money to buy food for my family.  She said that it didn’t really matter and that it was still a law, but she let me go in.  I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and I intended and then went about my business gathering items in the store. 

I was definitely upset and shaken by the ordeal; I decided on my way out to find a manager to explain the situation so they could inform the entrance staff what the mandate was and also that it is not acceptable to ask someone to “prove” their disability or medical condition.  I located two on-duty managers on my way to the checkout line.  I explained my situation to both of them.  Both of them began to argue with me about what had happened.  One of them began to close the space between us, without regard to social distancing practices; it definitely felt like an attempt to intimidate me.  He said that it was my responsibility as the person with the disability to make sure that I take care of my hand sanitizing before I enter the store.  This seemed ridiculous to me, I felt that he couldn’t possibly have understand what I explained.  So, I tried again to describe the situation.  At this point, one of the managers left.  The other continued to tell me that it was a law that everyone had to use the hand sanitizer and that I was breaking the law.  He also told me that I was not allowed to move from where I stood; he went to get gloves for me to wear in order for me to leave the store.  I had already washed my hands at the beginning, but apparently he didn’t think that was enough. 

Again, a huge line formed behind me witnessing this interaction because there is only one very narrow way to get to the checkout lines now with social distancing in effect.  As I stood there waiting, people tried to go around me in a wide circle, I am sure they thought I had something wrong with me or that I was contagious.  I waited, and I wondered if I should just leave.  But, I needed those items for my family, but I was essentially not allowed to leave because someone made a unilateral decision to force me to stay that was not based on true rules or regulations of any kind.  Additionally, putting anyone in a situation where they are not able to leave is extremely emotionally upsetting and psychologically damaging.  Once he returned, he offered vinyl powdered gloves which I am allergic to.  I told him that I couldn’t use them and that I just wanted to go.  He said, “well, I guess I will let you go.”  He continued to say that I couldn’t come back unless I was going to follow the laws. 

Fortunately, I have very understanding and supportive family.  We were able to contact the corporate complaint line for the store and explain what had happened.  They were apologetic and validating about the experience.  I was also able to process what happened with my family on the way home which definitely helped, but I still kept going over it in my mind all night wondering, how could I have done things differently?  Should I have even bothered to try to fix the situation?  Should I just use the sanitizer and deal with the medical aftermath? 

The truth is that this isn’t really a story about COVID-19 protocols and one terrible experience.  It’s a story about what happens to so many of us who “don’t look disabled.”  We are constantly put in positions of having to choose between our health or potential aggressions by others.  So many times, I think, “do I feel good enough today to not ask for help?”  Unfortunately, most of the time I have to be having a really bad pain day in order to ask for accommodations that I have the right to and that I should use for the good of my health and well-being.  It should not be this way.  We should be believed when we advocate for ourselves.  Believe me, it would be so much easier to “just use the sanitizer”, or other similar situation, rather than have to go through constant, exhausting explanations to strangers on a daily basis.  No one with a disability should be told “you have to prove it.”  The only thing I truly proved yesterday was that I was able to stand up for myself and my rights; I can only hope that I will continue to find the strength to keep doing that.” 

To learn more about the ADA and your rights as a disabled person, check out, https://www.ada.gov/cguide.htm#anchor62335 and the ADA National Network, https://adata.org/learn-about-ada

Additionally, should you need support during this difficult time, we offer low cost virtual coaching internationally. Learn more at, https://grasp.org/coaching/