Having a roommate can be challenging for anyone – sharing a space, having to make sure you’re not too loud, not able to do the things you could if you were alone, worrying that they would be dirty, a thief, a party animal.
However, if you have a disability, there are a whole other challenges to think about. Of course you may be upset at the fact you have to share space (clearing space in the fridge, cabinets, counters and pantry), having to remember you can’t blast your music as loud as you want when cleaning the house or taking a shower, can’t walk around topless – or naked – whenever you want, if you will have cockroaches because your roommate doesn’t know what a broom is for or what it means to wash dishes, whether or not some of your things will go missing, or if you will have the cops called because your roommate thinks it perfectly normal to throw a party ‘just because’ on a Tuesday night.
But you also have to worry about other things; like whether or not your roommate considers themselves to be your twenty-four seven at home nurse, or they consider you to be a diseased annoyance, or their very own personal freak show.
Here’s how to spot what kind of roommate you have – and how to put a stop to it.
This is a roommate who feels the need to take care of you; whether because they get enjoyment out of it or because they feel like they have no choice. You are disabled, they only want to make things easier on you – no need to wash your clothes, mop, clean your dishes; they’ll do it for you (and they’ll do it the right way).
Despite the fact that you’ve been taking your medicine on your own for years, they’ll be behind you every morning and every night making sure you’ve taken your meds. Sometimes, they’ll even want to watch. Although they’ve never had to take meds, they’ll give you tips on how to put your contacts in or take them out, the right way to put eye drops in, the way you should organize your pills and what you should wash them down with.
They’ve only known you for a short while, but they consider themselves to be an expert on your disability; they’ll tell their friends what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you can and cannot do.
When company is over, they’ll go on and on how rewarding – but difficult – it is being a roommate to someone who is disabled. They’ll go into detail on how much they help you. They’ll sigh over how difficult you are about not excepting help when offered.
They’ll praise you over the simplest tasks – that you have been doing on your own for years – and gently reprimand you when they think you are pushing the limits of your body. When you don’t have enough energy to do much, they’ll be right there pointing out how right they were about your body’s limits and abilities.
How to Stop It
One of the things I do when a new girl moves in is make it known to them right away that I do not want them to clean up after me. “If you notice that I’ve missed a spot when cleaning, let me know right away, do not clean it.”
You have to make it clear that you expect a normal roommate relationship between you two. Your roommate wouldn’t expect to take care of anything around the house for an able-bodied roommate, and they should expect the same thing with you – despite having a disability.
This roommate is someone who feels very uneasy about your disability, or they think it an annoyance to have a disabled roommate. They’ll stare at you when you walk into a room. They’ll back up a few steps when you come closer. When you try to get to know your roommate, they’ll answer all of your questions, but won’t reciprocate.
They speak more to your aid (if you have one), to your friends, or to your other roommate than they do to you.
They’ll ask if labeling the stove, oven, microwave and washer and drier is really necessary when you have friends that can help — do it for – you. When you tell them that you are willing to work with them to make things easier for them, they’ll sigh and walk away muttering “forget about it.”
Knowing what kind of disability you have, they refuse to socially adapt to it – for example: if you are blind, they will nod or shake their head instead of giving a verbal response.
They think of you only as a disability, not as a person.
They will not think it fair that you are not being charged by the apartment complex for having a service animal.
When in a group of people, they’ll make plans with everyone and not include you; if brought to their attention, they’ll give an excuse about your disability and how it would be too hard.
If you are out in public with them, they’ll ask you if you really need to bring your cane, where your sunglasses or keep your dog in harness. They will want you to pass as an able-body as much as possible.
They’ll compare your aches and pains to their experiences (“I know exactly how you feel, I felt the same way when I have headaches/sprained my ankle/had an earache/I get moody too, especially when I’m on my period/I gain weight like crazy too, especially during Christmas.”).
They are extremely uncomfortable at the fact you have an active sexual life.
They make assumptions on your mental capabilities based on your disability.
How to Stop It
Living with someone you don’t get along with is hard; living with someone who doesn’t like you because of something you can’t change is terrible.
At first you will give excuses for your roommates attitude; you will say things like, “their not a people person,” or “their probably going through a hard time.” Then you will start to notice how they only act that way towards you.
Maybe you will start to notice that they only tense up when your disability is mentioned (when you and your other roommate are talking about her migraines and your glaucoma headaches) or too much in-their-face (when you are reading the braille labels on your jars of sauces).
Do not ignore it; this will only stress you out and make your living situation unbearable – it is not your fault and you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable in your own home. Talk with them. Be as blunt as possible; do not sugar coat anything, you have a disability, so what – it is nothing to be ashamed or disgusted over.
If they can’t handle it and more problems arise, then I suggest you say “fuck it,” and be as disabled as fuck.
No seriously, if you live in a university apartment complex, then speak with someone in the office; they have someone there that could either move you or the ableist into another unit. If you live in a regular complex and were there first, then don’t worry about it; they’ll have to move. If you came after and nothing is working, then you will have to decide if you can stay there until your lease is up or if you can find another place to stay. Sometimes situations aren’t fixed; people won’t want to change and be open minded.
Just remember: it is not your fault; there is nothing wrong with being disabled.
This is a roommate who watches you as you poor tea, vacuum, wash dishes – someone who avidly watches you do anything at all. Everything you do is amazing; everything you do is impossible to imagine.
When your disability is brought up in conversation, they are amazed you don’t shy away or start to cry. During the conversation, they’ll ask you over and over again if you’re okay, if it bothers you that their asking about it, if you’re uncomfortable.
They’ll want to know your life story; how did you become disabled, were you born that way, do you know why, is it treatable. They’ll want to know how you feel; are you depressed, is your life hard, are you terrified. They’ll want to know your dreams and regrets; do you wish you weren’t disabled, you’ve missed out on so much.
They’ll praise you for getting out of bed and putting on a brave face. When getting to know you, they’ll focus on your disability and your bravery; they won’t ask about your job or college, they’ll just assume that you don’t work and don’t have an education. They’ll be surprised and amazed that you do, in fact, have a job and a college degree.
When they find out you work with disabled people, they’ll be unsurprised, saying that they are sure you teach them so much. If you don’t work with the disabled community, they’ll be surprised and wonder why.
If you are blind, they will expect you to be able to sing and play the piano. Some may even expect you to know sign language.
They’ll automatically think that if there was a cure, you would take it. They will not know how to take it when you tell them that, no, I do not want my vision back, I am happy with who I am – although I would like to get rid of my overbite.
They will always introduce you as there “insert disability” roommate. They will frequently say things like, “I can’t even do that and I’m not (insert disability)!” They will think the highest compliment is “you don’t seem disabled at all.”
They assume that all of your friends and your significant other is disabled.
How to Stop It
You’re going to be living with this person for a while. Be very honest with them. Tell them how uncomfortable or annoying it is. Show them how inappropriate there comments are – if they wouldn’t say those things to an LGBT+/person of color, then don’t say it to me; there’s nothing amazing about getting out of bed and doing everyday things while living.
Whether you have a caretaker, an unapologetic ableist, fascinated watcher or a mixture of all three, remember that you know your body and your limits, there is nothing wrong with being disabled and you deserve to feel comfortable in your own home. Be honest with yourself and your roommates. You are not a teachable moment; your health and life story is not for anyone to know. You have boundaries and everyone should respect that.