5 Assumptions Behind the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ That Are Actually Really Ableist

An illustration of people in a crowd, frowning and otherwise looking sad

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FOMO. The “fear of missing out.”

The fear that if you miss a party or event, you’ll miss out on something great, and you’ll be a loser without friends and opportunities.

FOMO is a product of industrialized capitalism and a society of people who feel that they’re always running out of time to be a success or to have value or to have fun.

And how FOMO plays out in life is ableist.

Now, maybe not all examples of FOMO are that big of a deal. Like if your friend is having a show on the East Coast and you live on the West Coast, it can be reasonably said that this situation is out of your control, due to the distance and expense of travel.

Cause we all know circumstances and physical structures like distance and travel expenses are harder to control than our own bodies, needs, and desires, right?

Wrong.

The above question is an ableist assumption which presumes that if a person is, say, having a panic attack, or is feeling sore or sick from a flare up related to their chronic illness, or from working their body too hard the day before, or for no traceable reason at all, that they should still be able to pull their shit together enough to go out and do whatever cool thing their friends are doing .

For some of us, this request is just as unreasonable as crossing the country in a day on a $50 budget.

I have arthrogryposis, a congenital condition which involves multiple joint contractures and some subsequent muscle shortening and weakness. There are parts of my body that are really strong, and there are parts of my body that are not so strong (but they’re strong in different ways). There are parts of my body that are really flexible, and there are parts that are truly not so flexible at all. I have changing and sometimes unpredictable muscle pain as I age.

I have PTSD and chronic to latent/triggered anxiety. I use and have used adaptive devices such as orthopedic braces, a walker, and manual and power wheelchairs. I’m a dancer, performance artist, model, actor, poet, journalist, social butterfly, and queer mixed race punk.

I love to go out on the town, y’all. But unfortunately, “the town” doesn’t always want to get down with what it entails to make my experience fun, accessible, and functional as possible.

I can’t speak for all disabled people, but I care about being as holistic and inclusive in my approach as possible, and am always working to expand my understanding of what makes things accessible to different kinds of people.

Some of my privileges which affect my experience as a disabled person include being able to transfer out of my chair on my own, being neurotypical and academically educated, being someone that people listen to (sometimes) due to the fact that my speech and behavior are not affected by my disability, and not being of a sensory minority.

That is to say that those are experiences of other disabled people who are a part of my community and this disability justice movement, among countless other experiences. I seek solidarity with them, as I expect and hope non-disabled people will seek solidarity with us, for the collective access and liberation of us all.

As an acronym of the Internet age, FOMO might seem like a simple, silly thing. But this is anything but true. “The Fear of Missing Out” is harmful to everyone, especially disabled people, in multiple ways.

Here are five of the ableist assumptions FOMO employs, and why you should subvert them now. Friends don’t let friends suffer from FOMO!

1. ‘Your Well-Being Is Never as Important as a Once-in-a-Lifetime Social Opportunity’

I was watching America’s Next Top Model recently for research, and I discovered something disturbing: In almost every season, a model is given the chance to ignore her body’s needs.

Got food poisoning? If you don’t show up to the judging, you’re out. Got the flu? Broken bones? All over body pain? Giving birth? Lupus flare? Having a panic attack? Too bad. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Model through it.

And as disabled people, we are expected to “model through it” every damn day.

You know what else is once-in-a-lifetime? Living.

And the days you choose to listen to your body’s needs and desires, or listen to your friend’s needs and desires and take the extra step to make something a little more accessible, or decide whether it’s a worthwhile thing to do at all, are not any less life-like than any other day.

I would say they’re even more rich in their opportunities.

FOMO is ableist because it doesn’t allow us to take our bodies, our circumstances, our safety, or our feelings into account.

Do a body scan. Listen to yourself. How do you feel?

Listen your friend. How do they feel? Compromise.

Have compassion for each other, and have compassion for yourself.

2. ‘But It’s Gonna Be So Fun! And It’s Summer/The Holidays/Pride/My Birthday, So You Have To!’

One time at Six Flags, I almost fell out of an orbiting, turning upside down ride while I was on a field trip with my dance troupe.

I rode it after waiting in an inaccessible line, one that I had to get out of my chair to get into, and then the dude who locked safety bars into place sort of skimped on mine. As the ride kicked up upside down, I began slipping to my death.

“Umoja! I’m slipping out!” I cried to my friend next to me.

“No, you’re not! You’re fine!” She yelled back. But then she saw me.

We’re two twelve-year-old, smallish, screaming black girls – one of whom is disabled and maybe about to die. The ride was stopped, and as reparations, I was offered a free day pass to ride more inaccessible, life threatening rides. The rest of the day was chill, and I won a stuffed animal I named Sean.

This popped into my head at my partner’s surprise party this year.

My boyfriend’s birthday is in July, so right in the middle of a lot of folks planning what their can’t-be-missed-super-exciting-body-challenging-fun-in-the-sun activities are going to be. My boo and I are currently in a long distance relationship, and he was talking about how he was planning to go to a water park when I wouldn’t be in town.

He was describing the park, and everyone else jumped in. I know it wasn’t my partner’s intention to start a discussion about inaccessible water parks, but I was beginning to feel it: FOMO.

“Are any of the rides accessible?” I asked defensively.

“No, not really, they all have a lot of stairs,” my boyfriend answered.

“This isn’t really a great thing to be talking about, is it?”

I was hurt. It is an extremely sticky, painful thing, to be the person who feels left out by the discussion of social plans that one can literally not participate in.

FOMO is ableist because it silences disabled people and shuts down any communication that would complicate or dampen an activity normatively considered “fun.”

As I mature, understand my situation better and as my body also changes, my definition of fun is changing.

Able-bodied privilege is not one that is frequently made aware of, in social situations, in social justice discussions, on the list of -isms that won’t be tolerated at the party. It’s taken for granted.

But if you check your privilege, how might you start perceiving your conversations in the context of ableism, or even the space around you, differently?

My partner and I had a really great conversation the next day about privilege, conversation in mixed groups (mixed referring to differing relationships to power and access), and how to do things we love without being ableist, which led to us introducing “Access Check Ins” into our day-to-day with one another.

Everyone has different ways that they can comfortably, functionally, and even pleasurably access any given space.

What you need in order to make being in a space, doing a certain activity, or participating in a conversation possible for you, are your “Access Needs.” (This concept was first introduced to me by Sins Invalid, the context of promoting disability justice everywhere, and never making ableist assumptions.)

What are you access needs? If we knew more about the needs of the people around us, it would be a lot harder for us to invisibilize and silence one another.

3. ‘If Your Friend Can Do It, Why Can’t You? If That Other Disabled Person Can Do It, Why Can’t You?’

I was once sitting by the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland and a friend of mine was complaining about a houseless person singing in a tree.

“What good is being homeless if you don’t travel?” they said.

“Not everybody can travel,” I said. “Some folks are waiting for Veteran’s Assistance, or General Assistance, or Social Security Disability Income, or they have mental disabilities which make it more complicated or unsafe for them to travel.”

“Hmmph! If you can travel, anybody can!” my friend said. And for a long time, I held myself to this standard.

FOMO is ableist because it makes assumptions about circumstances, experiences, and ability, feeding myths about “superhuman” disabled people who defy all odds to do whatever they want.

And membership into this group of “supercrips” (famously named by Eli Clare and others) is an amorphous goal that disabled people are pressured to achieve.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been carried – by my friends, by my mother, by a lover – to do something more dangerous than getting carried up the steps or the cliff in the first place, like throw myself down a water slide or jump into a mosh pit or sleep on rocks.

And FOMO disproportionately negatively impacts disabled people.

I never wanted to become the offensive stereotype of the chair using, potentially chronically ill girl in Heidi who is scared to try anything, so I tried everything.

I don’t regret any of these Criss Angel like risks I’ve taken, but I’m grateful to be alive and reflective, so that I can better weigh the risks to my well being into the future.

I will never again assume that it is impossible for me to be ableist as a disabled person, as there are things I have access to or ability for that other people don’t, and disability is not a homogenous experience.

I refuse to be an example in a nondisabled person’s mouth fed to another disabled person, “If Neve can do it, why can’t you?”

No.

The truth is, all of our bodies are precious and fragile. Disabled or nondisabled, bodies work hard and should not be taken for granted. Pushing yourself or your friends beyond their limits is not the answer.

Undo the myth of the supercrip who defies all nondisabled people’s expectations of their body and mind and is therefore a more whole person.

Let’s commend each other not only on persistence, but on turning back and resting.

No one is less for what they cannot or will not do with their body. Let’s begin to celebrate limits.

4. ‘Disabled People Don’t Have Desires – And Non-Disabled People Don’t Have Needs’

We are often asked to separate our desires from our needs.

Because disabled people are viewed by an ableist society as made up of need, there is no room for us to also have desire. Conversely, because non-disabled people (or people perceived as non-disabled) are asked to choose their desire to succeed in life over their own needs, non-disabled bodies are often seen as being made up exclusively of desire rather than need.

This is unrealistic, of course.

As the supercrips who prove themselves to have a place in this ableist world, deserving of the notice of nondisabled people, have shown, disabled people have desires, too.

And the non-disabled people who have become a societal success by making their own dreams come true are certainly using their money to get their needs met and then some.

FOMO is ableist because it turns “need” into something that can or should be ignored if one doesn’t hold privilege.

Needing something is not a privilege; neither is wanting something. But we all have varying expectations surrounding our desires and needs.

It’s time we start talking about our needs and desires, even when they seem to be mutually exclusive.

That is what liberation looks like to me: meeting desire and need in ethical, sustainable ways.

5. ‘You’ve Only Got One Shot – Do Not Miss Your Chance to Blow!’

Since the dawn of time, or since I can remember, nondisabled people have been making excuses for the ableism of inaccessibility.

When it comes to the inaccessibility of physical spaces – such as where activist meetings, public events, parties, or my friends’ get togethers are happening – the excuses usually have to do with time and money.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says that any building built or modified since 1993 must be made ADA accessible. Any building created before that time must have their inaccessible features assessed for the affordability and achievability of accessible modifications.

While “affordability” and “achievability” are relative terms, the truth is, often the inaccessible barriers are never assessed to begin with. There are complex reasons for this, but outside of the legal sector of understanding inaccessibility, there are social understandings of inaccessibility, which should not be so difficult to tackle.

Yet, my own radical community members, independently renting or booking spaces, often make the same excuses that business owners make – which is, essentially, “Accessibility is not my priority.”

I’m telling you, when we put our resources and brilliance together, a lot is possible.

If Occupy could host planning meetings outside so that houseless folks and others who were not connected to the grapevine in various ways could attend, then we can be more creative than hosting meetings and parties up multiple flights of stairs.

There’s even a growing collection of resources for booking and building accessible spaces online! Read and learn. Contribute, Build your own resource list!

For disabled people: If something feels inaccessible to you, and people are not moving forward on making it more accessible, I promise you, it will not be the only event of its kind.

Right now, there is another disabled person attending that event and raising a ruckus about how inaccessible it is for other kinds of disabled people.

For non-disabled people: There are infinite chances to get it right. As long as you don’t burn out on trying to new things or learning. As long as you don’t burn out your disabled friends by continually creating and/or attending inaccessible spaces.

FOMO is ableist because it operates on a system of scarcity.

We have the collective resources amongst us to make collective access possible. Don’t let metropolis-centered, industrialized capitalism fool you. This isn’t a race!

Take the time to figure it out, and take the time to take care.

And if at first you don’t succeed, take a nap, and try, try again!

***

Experiencing FOMO is no joke, and it’s an extremely body- and mind-punishing social phenomenon, but you can tell FOMO to take a hike when you feel like staying home and watching Empire instead!

If your friend is telling you they’re experiencing FOMO, listen! What’s the situation? How can this be alleviated or changed? And how can we all move towards the glorious suggestion Adrienne Marie Brown and her comrades make in the blog post “Self-Love as a Liberatory Practice for the Future?”

We cultivate JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) when we choose to take care of ourselves and each other.

I don’t know how you feel, but I don’t have spoons (disability slang for “energy”) for any more fear in my life – but I have all the room for joy.

Neve Be is an Oakland- and Seattle-based disability justice activist, writer, performer, and educator. They are a staff writer at HARLOT Magazine and a columnist at maximumrocknroll. Other writing can be found on modelviewculture.com and Plenitude Magazine. They also co-facilitate a contact improvisation jam for all women and queer spectrum people, and organize with Sins Invalid. Neve is always down to mutually share stories, analyze pop/punk culture, and collaborate with artists throughout the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. You can find them on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram.