Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the phrase “stay healthy” has become a common greeting and sign-off in our digital and in-person communication. It makes sense; we have been living with a massive risk to our collective health for the last year and a half, and many of us want to express support and a hope for the safety of our loved ones, friends and communities. However, the suggestion to “stay healthy,” is not as simple or encouraging as it may seem, especially for those of us who are disabled and chronically ill. In fact, the phrase can do more harm than good.
I have read the phrase “stay healthy” dozens of times in email sign-offs over the past year, and it is always sent with good intentions. However, as a disabled and chronically ill person, this message does not meet the sender’s goal of positivity. The word “stay” assumes everyone functions on the default of good health. Considering that disabled people are consistently devalued — such as the large-scale exclusion of disabled people from rationed ventilator supply due to their lower “quality of life” — the assumption of good health used in this phrase is not as innocuous as it may seem. Additionally, assuming that everyone around you is consistently healthy erases the reality of so-called invisible disabilities; this is especially true for those of us with chronic illnesses who deal with ableism and invalidation from this presumption of health on a daily basis. While “stay healthy” does not single-handedly oppress the disabled community, it perpetuates the ableist assumption that good health is the norm, which has consistently endangered the lives of disabled people.
By saying “stay healthy,” we reinforce a particular standard for healthiness that disabled and chronically ill people do not embody and that some have never embodied. In the dominant view of disability, the medical model, any variation in the functioning of body, mind or ability is considered a problem to be diagnosed, treated and cured. This model erases the social limitations placed on disabled people, while constructing a power dynamic between the inferior disabled person and their savior doctors. The medical model contributes not only to ableism, but also to the deprioritization and disposability of disabled people during the pandemic. The phrase “stay healthy,” then, supports the bodily norm of healthiness in the midst of a crisis that directly threatens the lives of those who do not fit that image. Disabled people, especially those of us who are chronically ill, do not have the privilege of feeling or staying “healthy” during a pandemic because our safety is always and already threatened by the ways a norm of healthiness pushes us to the margins.
Asking each other to “stay healthy” also frames health (and thus illness, disease or disability) as an individual practice under our control. While wearing masks, social distancing, washing our hands and getting the vaccine definitely minimize our risk of exposure to COVID-19, there are many more factors influencing our risk and our health that are out of our control. These social determinants of health range from socioeconomic status, neighborhood and physical environment (including surrounding pollution), to food availability, employment (e.g. hours, physical demands, environment) and access to healthcare (e.g. consistency, quality, experiences with medical oppression/trauma). Despite these many factors, disability and illness are viewed as personal responsibilities caused by personal failings rather than something that could happen to anyone. Individualizing health by saying “stay healthy” disregards the structural forces and privilege that undoubtedly influence one’s ability to stay healthy and abled.
Similarly, the phrase moralizes healthiness by implying that those who are healthy are doing all the right things, while those who get sick (with COVID-19 or any other illness or disability) have failed. This equivalence between health and morality also motivated the discourse at the beginning of the pandemic that only the old, disabled and otherwise at-risk would get COVID-19, while everyone else had no need to worry. In addition to its foundation in the eugenics movement, this mindset dehumanizes those at risk for infection or more severe symptoms as disposable. The moralization of health not only pervades everyday conversations but also the medical sphere, in which doctors view disabled people’s lives as less worth living, and thus limit access to care, treatment and life-saving resources like ventilators. At least 25 states have policies deprioritizing care for disabled people in the case of hospital overloads, and the phrase “stay healthy” plays a role in normalizing a negative association of disability and illness.
Of course, this small phrase is not, on its own, the biggest challenge presented by COVID-19, especially for the disabled community. But the issues with the greeting “stay healthy” represent many of the challenges disabled and chronically ill people have faced over the course of the pandemic, including erasure, exclusion and disposability.
We all want our loved ones, friends, peers and communities to avoid contracting COVID-19, especially as more contagious variants spread. But telling each other to “stay healthy” is not the best way to share that sentiment. The phrase is loaded with implications that assume a default of health, individualize and de-contextualize illness and healthiness and equate good health with goodness and worthiness. We must acknowledge that linguistic baggage and its connections to actions put disabled people at greater risk. Instead of using phrases that deprioritize disabled people, we should seek out our disabled and chronically ill communities not only for lessons on developing accessible forms of care and community, but also to build strong solidarity for this crisis and the next.
Jay Jones (22Ox, 24C) is from Tallahassee, Florida.