Invisible disabilities are as real and limiting as visible disabilities

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By believing someone when they say they have a disability that you can’t see, you might just be making someone’s day a little more manageable, writes author Lisa Cox.

Would you ever tell someone in a wheelchair to “stop pretending”?⁠ Or would you ever think to yourself that someone with another type of mobility aid is just “not trying hard enough to walk”?⁠

It can be very difficult to sympathise with someone who has disabilities that you can’t see, but not being able to see them doesn’t make them any less challenging, in fact, it can be even harder because you are constantly questioned.

As someone with both visible and invisible disabilities, I am aware that people have been making the kind of comments like the above, about my invisible disabilities, for years.

⁠Even well-intentioned folks who may not have said those exact words to someone have thought something similar quietly to themselves:

  • “He could do it yesterday so why can’t he do the same thing today?”⁠
  • ⁠”I think she’s just being lazy.”⁠
  • ⁠”He looks fine so what’s the problem?”⁠
  • ⁠”She’s such a drama queen!”⁠

⁠Just like sexism and racism, ableism comes in a myriad of forms and misconceptions about the unseen is just one of ableism’s ugly manifestations.⁠

The first way to counteract ableism is to shine the light on disabilities, they’re there, they’re real and they genuinely impact people’s lives whether you believe they do or not.

By believing someone when they say they have a disability that you can’t see, you might just be making someone’s day a little more manageable. You might give someone the gift of simply being accepted without needing to justify or explain themselves. We all deserve this.

⁠Whether you find yourself judging consciously and blatantly, subconsciously or unconsciously and unintended, it’s never okay. That doesn’t mean it should never enter your mind, after all, you can’t necessarily control what enters your mind, but it’s about becoming aware of your own biases and judgements and using information (like this) to remind yourself to be kind because you can’t decide for someone else what they’re capable of.

⁠Unfortunately, if we’re honest, we’re probably all guilty of all guilty of making assumptions about an invisible disability (such as those listed above), whether or not we realised we were doing it at the time. Sometimes need to address our own internalised ableism too – even about ourselves. ⁠

⁠You might not see someone’s invisible disabilities but you will probably see a look of sheer exhaustion sweep across their face when they’re asked to justify themselves (most likely for the umpteenth time that week). Other ways in which an invisible disability might manifest in the individual:⁠

  • Someone might be more tired today (even though I’ve had lots of coffee and sleep) than they were on other days.⁠
  • They may struggle to see properly today but could see perfectly last week.⁠
  • Struggling to get the hang of that new app (or computer program) even though they’re a whizz with others.⁠
  • ⁠Complaining of pain even though they look well.⁠
  • Someone might be fine with certain tasks on some days, but those same tasks might be completely outside of their capabilities on other days.

⁠Bodies don’t give us the same level of normal every day, even with able-bodied people. Some days we feel energised and inspired and other days we feel tired or distracted. For someone with disabilities, the degrees at which they can interact, cope, take part and stay energised varies.

⁠Given that approximately 20 per cent of our population has a disability, only a very small number of those people are in wheelchairs.

Some invisible disabilities can be more challenging than physical disabilities but each individual is unique and has a different lived experience so please don’t make your assumptions about an entire community based on one person.

About the author:

Lisa Cox is a disability advocate, writer, motivational speaker, and the author of two books, who fights every day to remedy the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of people living with disabilities in popular culture.

Her story is one of untold resilience, and it’s one she admits she probably never would’ve believed if you’d told her several years ago.

After she experienced an unexpected brain haemorrhage, Cox spent three weeks in a coma and two months on life support. She experienced pneumonia, heart attacks and uncontrollable seizures as her organs shut down. Her family was told they might have to turn off her life support, before miraculously, her brain started to recharge.

She went on to spend over a year in hospital, undergoing dozens of operations, including heart surgery, the amputation of one leg, toes and nine fingertips. Since she’s returned to hospital for a hip replacement and open-heart surgery and has permanent brain damage affecting her speech and memory. She’s also over 25 per cent blind, epileptic, and suffers from fatigue and osteoarthritis.