White Feathers and (In)Visibility

I was recently reading Robertson Davies again, as I do, and I was struck by the narrative of a character who was handed a white feather in the First World War. For those unfamiliar with the Order of the White Feather and their work, they spearheaded a campaign to get people, especially attractive young women, to hand out white feathers to young cis men out of uniform who appeared to be able and of draft age during the First World War. The white feather was handed out as a symbol of cowardice and was intended to shame people into joining the service.

It was a fairly effective campaign, as these campaigns go. Women involved in the campaign took care to approach people in very public places to enhance the humiliation, and being handed a white feather was meant to be pretty damning. People who were technically ineligible for service because of disabilities or other reasons sometimes opted to sign up after receiving what must have felt like endless white feathers, and some of these people died because, well, they shouldn’t have been serving. Likewise, a lot of men below draft age signed up because they were harassed for looking too old or because of the immense pressure to go to war, which is why there were a lot of teens in the trenches in the First World War.

In the context of the Davies book, the character was actually a spy doing espionage work for the war, but he mused on what it felt like to get a white feather, and the role that disability played in receiving white feathers. He thought in particular about mental illness, one of the few recognised ‘invisible’ disabilities of the time, and the pressure endured by people who were ineligible for service when they were handed feather after feather to shame them for not being in uniform. For not serving their country and society.

I think that the white feather comes into play in a big way in social perceptions of disability. Although people aren’t handing out white feathers anymore, there are definitely social attitudes about people with so-called ‘invisible’ disabilities. People are shamed for not working, for accepting disability payments, for needing the disabled seating on the bus, for being fatigued, for having trouble in school. They appear able to the observer and the observer decides that they are objects of derision and that they deserve public humiliation.

But what is this thing, invisibility, anyway?

A lot of my disabilities are of the sort usually conceived of as invisible. Except that they really are not. There are a lot of tell-tale things about me that give away my disabilities. Not just to other people who share those disabilities and thus are aware of the subtle things that can manifest. No, sometimes the manifestation of my disabilities is very obvious and extremely hard to miss.

I do things that are stereotypically considered ‘crazy,’ like rocking. Fidgeting. Self harming. Mumbling to myself. Repeating myself. Freezing in place for extended periods of time. Becoming extremely agitated during what people think of as very simple interactions. When people see someone who appears to be homeless on the street doing those things, they tend to say things like ‘look at the crazy homeless person’ and cross to the other side of the street. Yet, mental illness, craziness, is considered an invisible disability, despite the fact that there are things society views as obvious markers of craziness and uses to determine that people are mentally ill, whether or not they are.

I don’t like the term ‘invisible disability.’ I don’t like it both because it’s often not true, because in fact many disabilities are very easy to identify and not just to the initiated, but because it reduces the perception of disability to visual perception. As though this is the sum total of how people interact with others and how people identify each other.

And I don’t like it because I personally feel that it contributes to the¬†hierarchy¬†of disability. People with disabilities face not only ableism from the nondisabled community, but also discrimination within the disability community. Some people are considered ‘more disabled’ than others. Some people are considered more deserving of accommodations, treatment, government benefits. Some people take it upon themselves to police disability, to decide who is and who is not disabled, and one of the big dividing lines is the ‘invisible disability.’ There’s an attitude, for example, that people with ‘invisible’ disabilities don’t actually experience ableism because they can choose whether or not to disclose or display their disabilities.

This is, to be blunt, extremely malodorous bullshit. It is one of the things about the disability community that I like least, and I am very glad that in the circles I run in, it is consistently and regularly challenged. That people who rank, as it were, high in the disability hierarchy consistently call out the hierarchy for what it is, which is a pile of harmful crap. A pile of harmful crap that hurts the disability community itself and also contributes to negative perceptions of disability in society in general. It further adds to the idea that some disabilities are more ‘worthy’ than others, for lack of a better word, and that it’s ok to deny accommodations or to question disability status.

The people who give people like me white feathers should be ashamed of themselves, just as the people who used white feathers to shame and pressure young cis men in the First World War should have been ashamed of themselves. What they are doing is harmful, and awful, and, for me, it’s some of the worst ableism I experience because, well, I expect it from nondisabled people. What I don’t expect is to have other disabled people questioning my very existence, deciding what does and doesn’t qualify as disability, and, above all, telling me that I am invisible when I am right here.