Are People With Narcolepsy Safe?

“What if I am stopped by police and can’t understand their demands?” I ask my friend, after expressing my fear of police due to my hearing impairment.

“I just don’t want to get shot just for being deaf.”

My friend rolled her eyes and reassured me that I was safe. But am I?

Violence against people with disabilities

Police violence is so common against people with disabilities that we constitute up to half of the people killed by police.1 The Center For Disability Rights states that “[police] are quick to view disability, from deafness to neurodivergence to physical disabilities, as noncompliance – and even quicker to use that perceived noncompliance to justify excessive force.”1

Misinterpreting narcolepsy symptoms

As a person with narcolepsy, I experience a variety of symptoms that are visible to those around me. Cataplexy, the paralysis that I experience from strong emotions, sleep attacks, and cognitive dysfunction are all visible symptoms to those around me.

All of these symptoms can be interpreted as being impaired from substance use. As such, I justifiably worry about experiencing issues with the public or police due to my symptoms.

Safety in public

I often feel extremely unsafe in public when I have sleep attacks. I try to hug my purse and wrap the straps around my arms if I have to succumb to unconsciousness around strangers.

As a woman, this fear of physical vulnerability in public is exacerbated by a constant looming threat of sexual assault. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime.2

Safety in relationships

The danger doesn’t end there. Women with disabilities are 40 percent more likely to experience violence from intimate partners as well.3

Dating with narcolepsy has been tinged with fear of being unable to defend myself during cataplexy or sleep attacks, if needed. I am attracted to both men and women but am more likely to feel safe enough to date women. I suppose this is because it is easier to protect oneself against an opponent with similar body strength.

Risk and racial disparities

That being said, I am still a white-appearing person. My Mexican heritage is much denser in my bones than my skin. Studies show that for young men of color in the US, “police use of force is among the leading cause of death."4

The risk of being shot and killed by police is highest for black men. A black man in the U.S. has a 1 in 1000 chance of being killed by police over the course of their lifetime.4

We all deserve to feel safe

It is frustrating to think of the danger that some people in our community have to face every day just by existing and living their lives. The intersectionality of race, disability, sexual identity, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities determines how safe one person is compared to another. I hope that we can make the necessary changes to protect our people.

Do you ever feel unsafe due to your narcolepsy? Do you ever feel unsafe due to other parts of your identity? If you feel comfortable, please share your experiences in the comments below!

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