The most popular symbol associated with disability is the image of the wheelchair. While this image certainly serves a purpose, it doesn’t encompass the entirety of the disabled experience. What do I mean by that? Well, we know that disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. People with invisible disabilities struggle differently than people with physical disabilities. Not only do they need to deal with the limitations of their impairments, but they must constantly prove, to other people, that they are disabled. As you can imagine, this process is extremely taxing on both a physical, and an emotional, level.
Before we can begin, I must first pose the question: what is an invisible disability? Like physical disabilities, invisible disabilities can vary in appearance, impairment, and limitation; however, unlike physical disabilities, most invisible disabilities are not visibly apparent. Hence, their namesake. People may appear “normal,” yet have real limitations. Such impairments can result in a variety of disabilities, including: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, severe allergies, Epilepsy, and Autism. Symptoms of these conditions can range from chronic pain, to chronic fatigue, to mental illness, to seizures, to social ineptitude, to anything in between.
Because our society places so much emphasis on physical appearance, people with invisible disabilities are often questioned about the authenticity of their impairment(s). Let’s put this theory to the test, by providing an example. You and I are classmates. You are able-bodied, and I am a quad-amputee, who uses a power wheelchair. Talking after class, we watch a sedan park in a handicapped spot. The driver exits the car, and walks to class, without the aid of an assistive device. What inferences do you make? How do you react?
When I’ve witnessed this situation in my own life, and given similar examples during lectures and speeches, a common response is: the person doesn’t need a handicapped spot. Mostly, people infer that a mobility device is required, or that the person must exhibit a physical symptom, such as a limp. We use these visible cues to tell us whether a person is “disabled.” Otherwise, we assume that they are “faking it.” Well, guess what? You can’t rely on those visible cues, alone, because they could be either blaringly wrong or misleading. Maybe that person suffers from chronic fatigue, and can’t walk long distances. Maybe she has problems with her joints, forgot her cane at home, and doesn’t have time to go back and pick it up. We can’t use visual cues to determine whether a person has a disability, because some disabilities are undetectable by sight, alone.
Now, I don’t provide this example to make people feel bad about themselves. Most of us are probably guilty of making such assumptions, myself included. My intention is to show that we legitimize physical disabilities, over invisible disabilities. Examples, in the media and such, have taught our society that certain people are “more disabled” than others. Because we live in a visual society, we assume that people are “more disabled,” if we can see their disabilities.
What do we do with this information? Better yet, what can we do? Challenge yourself to suspend judgment. Don’t make assumptions about people, or their conditions, until you get to know them, better. As people with disabilities, we can live our lives, and achieve our goals, in ways that may surprise able-bodied people. We must keep this idea in mind, as some able-bodied people have never been exposed to people with disabilities, and might not know how to act or react. That isn’t necessarily their fault.
Image courtesy of Sunrise Medical®