By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

LITCHFIELD PARK, Arizona – The Center for Disease Control estimates that more than two million Americans use wheelchairs in their daily lives and approximately 6.5 million depend on canes, walkers or crutches. Right now, about 15% of the population in America is 65 or older. It is estimated that by 2060, 25% of the population will be 65 or older.  What those numbers do not tell, is how those people are treated by society.

Nancy Root is an 82, child-polio survivor who today calls herself a cripple. Five years ago, after the death of her husband, Nancy’s condition began to change. Her arms got weaker and her legs got wobblier. Nancy recounted when she disappeared. She was in a shopping mall that was rather large so she decided to use a wheelchair because her legs were not as good as they used to be. Nancy says during that shopping trip, she waited longer for service in the mattress store that she and her friend were shopping in.

Nancy Root can recall the occasion where she first disappeared. Photo Courtesy of Conor E. Ralph of the New York Times.

Nancy says after this, she began noticing how much people withdrew from her. When she was in the chair, people did not look at her. Instead, they looked around her, through her, or to whoever was pushing her chair. “They think I’m mentally incapacitated. I’m sure of that. I’d stake my life on it,” she said. She says doctors offices are the worst. The receptionists usually do not address her. Instead, they will address the person pushing the wheelchair with questions like, “Does this lady have an appointment?”

But Nancy still has her mental wit about her. People just assume that because she is in the chair, she is not as aware as someone who is not in a chair.  She said, “They don’t allow this lady to have a brain.” Nancy experiences this everywhere; at the movie theater, on airplanes, in restaurants. Nancy is not the only person to experience this. Many people who have disabilities or who are older experience this kind of treatment regularly. People often edit them out of the frame.

Part of the problem is that people do not want to bring attention to people’s disabilities or they are worried about saying the wrong thing. So, instead of being inclusive, it is easier to just remain in blissful ignorance to avoid a potentially awkward situation. But this phenomenon means people are being isolated and ignored which may negatively impact their lives and social interactions. It has been argued that it is inadvertently cruel to exclude part of the population simply because the interaction might be awkward. The first step toward changing this is bringing the issue to light.

For more information, please see:

National Review – Bruni “Gets It” About Disability Bias – Except for Assisted Suicide – 17 December 2017

New York Times – Are You Old? Infirm? Then Kindly Disappear – 16 December 2017

Author: Sarah Louise Purtill

is a second-year law student at Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL). In addition to being an Impunity Watch News Reporter, she is an Associate Editor for the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce. Sarah is the Media Managing Editor for Syracuse Law and Civic Engagement Forum as well as the Treasurer for Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity’s Carmody Chapter at SUCOL. She is also serving her second term as a Class Senator for the Student Bar Association at SUCOL. Sarah is a student attorney at the Elder and Health Law Clinic of SUCOL. Sarah graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Honors Program in June of 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Minor in History. Sarah expects to graduate with her Juris Doctor from SUCOL in May of 2019.