Today, I often hear the word used in government, education and health care.

Dr. Chester Pierce, a Harvard University psychiatrist, first introduced the term in the 1970s, defining it as “ ... subtle, stunning often automatic and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of Blacks by offenders.”

Since then, microagression has been applied to several marginalized groups.

This month, I was a co-presenter at Disability Network Northern Michigan’s Peer Advocacy group, a co-leader of the Traverse City Human Rights Commission 7-Day Civility Challenge and a consultant to NMC’s Phi Theta Kappa’s upcoming invisible disabilities program “To Be Seen and Heard.”

In each instance, microagression was discussed.

For some, the label of microagression is tied to political correctness; thereby limiting the exchange of free speech. Is it victimization thinking? Being too thin-skinned? Making something out of nothing? Requiring each of us to be overly delicate with one another? Simply rudeness?

For others, microgression is a form of discrimination and should be referred to as such. While rarely overt or law breaking, the effect can be depression, self-doubt and isolation. Reduced mental health can lead to physical health concerns and lowered overall life satisfaction.

For many people with chronic pain, their disability is invisible. If they’re young, they are often told by everyone from family to professionals “You’re too young to be sick”, “You don’t look ill” and “It’s all in your head.” Additionally, people with learning disabilities, often another invisible disability, hear “You just need to try harder,” “You’re lazy” or “You should lower your expectations.”

Beyond what’s said, microagressions can take the form of not providing people with the particular goods and services they need to thrive.

For me personally, I’ve found most perpetrators of microagressions are unaware they’ve hurt me.

That doesn’t mean whatever they’ve said or done hasn’t hurt. Sometimes it has. But what’s changed for me, is my ownership of someone else’s behavior. If I’m unsure of the intent of what someone has said or done, I ask them. I don’t let the ambiguity drain my energy. Most of the time, the perpetrator needs to be educated not chastised.

Not all microaggressions are of equal importance. Some are best met with humor. When someone says “You’re so lucky to board a plane first.” Sometimes I’ve said, “Yep, one of the many perks of having a disability.”

Or at a cocktail party: “Can you walk just a little to get into the small restroom?” and my response, “Not the last time I checked.”

Left unexamined, other microagressions can be damaging. Statements such as “The ADA has solved all of the problems ... it’s the law, access is no longer a problem” are not only untrue but invalidate the work that still needs to be done.

When someone calls a person with a disability a cripple, it’s generally seen as a verbal assault. Verbal assaults lead to polarizing divisions between groups.

If a person with a disability is thought to have received a job promotion simply because of their disability, that’s an insult. Insults are a form of incivility and hinder communication.

And, not seeing characters on TV and in Hollywood portrayed by actors with disabilities, including stories about persons with disabilities, is a form of environmental aggression. Environmental aggression prevents true understanding of one another.

Maybe microagressions aren’t so small, after all.

Contact Susan Odgers at odgersadapted@yahoo.com.

Recommended for you