One of my favorite places to run is a greenbelt off the Santa Fe Rail Trail near my house. To me, it looks like the grassland in the African Serengeti that I have only seen on PBS nature programs.
Besides the high grass and winding trails, it is quiet and there aren’t many people around.
Soon after a recent long, meditative run, my mood was upended by a post on Nextdoor, the social media site for neighbors. The post described an exchange between a man and a woman on a greenbelt trail off the railroad tracks.
According to the post, a man was standing 50 feet away from a woman, yelling at her for not wearing a face mask.
She told him she had asthma and couldn’t breathe while wearing a mask. He then proceeded to yell obscenities at her, according to the post.
The person who posted the message was concerned about the confrontation and thought it was wrong for the man to pass judgment on someone whose medical history he didn’t know.
There were many comments on the post, some expressing support for the woman and others saying she should have been wearing a mask, despite her asthma.
People are stressed out these days, especially with the rising surge of the novel coronavirus, the election, upcoming holidays, job losses and economic worries.
Adding to the problem, people with invisible illnesses or disabilities often face disbelief about their condition. They are judged by others to be “cheating” when they use an accessible parking space or bathroom stall, or get in line to board a plane early.
Since the severity of their disorder or disability cannot be seen, they often are asked by complete strangers to reveal their limitations.
When someone is out walking, it may be difficult to determine if they are having trouble breathing or if they have congestive heart failure or any other hidden condition.
There are so many disabilities that are hidden from sight with varying degrees of severity that not even a highly trained medical specialist could necessarily identify by sight what condition a person might have.
Someone with severe asthmatic issues might not be obvious to a passing stranger.
Many people with asthma, even a severe case, can wear a face mask for a short period of time, and it’s never a bad idea to carry a face mask with you.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also says those who have trouble breathing and cannot wear a mask in public must maintain social distance during the pandemic.
It was clear to me from the social media post, however, that the woman walking in the greenbelt was not near anyone and was being harassed unnecessarily.
There are better ways to handle such a situation.
I recently was asked by an attorney who worked with small Northern New Mexico communities to provide some direction and advice to store owners regarding customers who claimed to have a disability and would not wear a mask.
I told her to let merchants know customers with a disability do not necessarily have an exemption from wearing a face covering in the store.
The Americans with Disabilities Act only requires that people with a disability are provided reasonable accommodations, which do not include exemption from a public health requirement.
The shop attendant might offer the customer a curbside shopping privilege and ask the customer to provide a list of the items they would like to buy. They can request the customer wait outside for the order to be filled.
The Department of Justice, which oversees the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, recently said in a news release, “The ADA does not provide a blanket exemption to people with disabilities from complying with legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operations.”
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.