Visibility and Disability

I don’t write about disability issues a lot, primarily because I do not feel qualified to do, and I often feel like I am making an ass of myself when I try. But I like to be an ally to disability activists when I can, and I do think it’s important to talk about disability, and to bring it into the discourse. There’s a very focused collective social effort which is attempting to erase people with disabilities (or disabled people, if you prefer UK usage), and it makes me very uncomfortable. I’m especially pleased to see more feminist sites addressing disability issues, because I think that feminism ties into disability in many ways.

But I’m not talking about intersectionality today, although I could. Instead, I want to talk about invisible disabilities.

Someone with an invisible disability looks like someone who is able-bodied. Ou has no visible sign of impairment, but ou is still disabled. A lot of things could be considered invisible disabilities, like asthma, fibromyalgia, diabetes, renal failure, traumatic brain injuries, lupus, bipolar disorder, and so forth. People with invisible disabilities may not look like they need accommodations, but they actually do.

Like that woman you saw at the grocery store the other with the handicapped placard on her car who could walk just fine. She actually wasn’t some sort of malingerer or faker who managed to get a handicapped card because she’s too lazy to walk. She has an invisible disability, and having a handicapped placard for her car allows her to do things she might not be able to do otherwise.

Same with that guy who totally wasn’t blind who had a dog in the grocery store. He has an invisible disability, and having a service animal helps him function. Without a service animal, he might not be able to shop in the grocery store, which means that he would be dependent on someone else to get groceries. His quality of life and level of independence are greatly improved by having a service dog.

Same with that woman who boarded the plane early who looked perfectly fit, not like the “real” disabled people or the people with young children. She has an invisible disability, and needs some extra time to board and find her seat, so she is allowed to board early.

Marginalizing people with invisible disabilities is really hurtful. Curiously, it’s often the able-bodied who feel the need to police people with invisible disabilities. It’s able-bodied people who lobby for tougher regulations on parking placards which exclude a lot of people with invisibilities. It’s able-bodied people who bitch and moan about service animals, attempting to get them removed from public places even though that’s illegal, and making people with service animals feel uncomfortable. It’s able-bodied people who whine about disability access on the rare occasions that it’s actually offered, complaining that people who aren’t disabled will abuse it. Evidently, despite not being medical doctors and knowing nothing about disability, most of the able-bodied are fully capable of diagnosing disabilities and determining their severity.

When someone states that ou has a disability and ou looks “normal,” that’s not actually an invitation to ask that person about what disability ou has. It’s not your business. That women in the car at the grocery store might have anxiety disorder, or chronic fatigue syndrome, or rheumatoid arthritis, but it’s not really relevant to your existence, and it’s not appropriate to challenge her because she doesn’t look disabled to you. That man with the service animal might have seizures which are identified by the dog, or he might be deaf and using the service animal for assistance, or he might have bipolar disorder. Again, it’s not really your business.

Someone with an invisible disability probably doesn’t need your well-meaning and helpful advice. Ou doesn’t really need to hear about the treatment your aunt’s friend’s hairdresser uses, or about how you like to use aspirin for headaches. The words “but you don’t look sick”  are marginalizing. People with invisible disabilities certainly don’t appreciate being informed that their conditions are “all in the head” or made up. They don’t need to be informed that only people in wheelchairs are really disabled, or that the only people who need service animals are blind. They need respect. They need accessibility. They need to be treated like human beings.

People with disabilities already face a lot of ignorance and prejudice. People wth invisible disabilities deal with prejudice on a whole new level. Awareness of the fact that invisible disabilities exist can go a long way towards improving the treatment of all people with disabilities.

6 Replies to “Visibility and Disability”

  1. One of the ways I look at it is that everyone has an invisible illness — mine is CFS, but yours may be a marriage falling apart or overwhelming financial burdens or a child who is struggling with drug abuse. We all need respect. We all need to be treated like human beings. Someone who doesn’t get that has the worse invisible illness of all.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It needs to be said, over and over until everybody hears it and understands. Invisible disability is a curse that leaves us isolated and doubting ourselves when we need the exact opposite. Keep it up!

  3. I really love reading a post about disability by someone who identifies himself as able bodied. I am disabled, but my disability is not always recognised. When I’m having a very energetic day, wearing comfortable shoes, and clothing that visibly corrects my posture, I can “pass” for able bodied. On all the other days, I range from “somebody who has hurt her foot” to “OMG her whole body is stiff and really weird-moving”. (I have cerebral palsy.) So depending on the day, I get treated as somebody without a disability (resulting in comments like “Geez, you’re really clumsy” when trying to remain standing in a moving bus) or with a visible disability (resulting in comments like “Are you in pain?” or “Look at that one gimping.”) Whatever mode I’m in, comments like these are intrusive, since they’re uttered casually as I’m just minding my own business. I therefore think it is terrific of you to adress this, and it is great for me to know that able bodied people think about how I feel. Yet I’d like to point one aspect of your view that I find a little too restricted. When I read this, I felt you put too much emphasis on the tools disabled people use as things designed to save them, and only them, from a life on the sidelines of society. The guide dog is only there to enable this man to have a dignified life, and whe shouldn’t bother him while he’s having it. True, but that guide dog is also there to enable this man to contribute to the society he’s in. Not only does he need to be treated like a human being. These tools make it possible for people to have a job and pay taxes, or do volunteer work, be an artist (or an audience for other artists), be a consumer of ice-cream on the beach, or be an ice-cream hating, fullfilled human being that is able to give love and wisdom to those close to him. Take these things away, and burden a whole society with someone who has to be cared for. Disabled people don’t have to be protected against able bodied bullies. The able bodied should stop hurting themselves by denying or hindering others from making a contribution. So I think your way of thinking is absolutely right – only I’d take it one step further. Thanks for writing your article!!

  4. One small correction; “himself” is not the correct pronoun to use when referring to the author.

    I’m sorry that my example of a guide dog came across the way you read it, because they was definitely not my intent. I’m also not quite sure about what you were trying to convey with your comment. I wish that you could clarify a little: I think that you are saying that some tools enable people to contribute to society, which is, I thought, what I was also saying, although evidently I did not state it explicitly enough. Perhaps this post came across as focusing on the fact that tools enable people to participate in society, rather than stressing the fact that they allow people to contribute? I was trying to educate people (from a place of limited understanding) that people with disabilities use tools in a lot of different ways, and that it’s not really appropriate for the ablebodied to challenge people with disabilities about the tools they use.

  5. Hi Meloukhia,

    Thank you for your comment, and please excuse the mistakes in my grammar. Dutch is my first language, and I’m always willing to learn.
    About your question: I’ve thought quite long about how to clarify my point, that’s why I didn’t answer immediately. (If you still feel that I’m being unclear after reading this, feel free to delete my comments, by the way. I wouldn’t want to detract from your article, which I enjoyed reading a lot.) It is a long story, so please bear with me.

    When I read about disabled people in the mainstream media (as a opposed to websites, papers or magazines dedicated to disability culture), they are mainly described as what I have come to call ‘consumers of care’. The description goes roughly like this: disabled people have been disadvantaged through no fault of their own. Since they, like any other, have a right to a dignified life, they are entitled to certain ‘privileges’ (like special parking places) to enhance their quality of life and make it easier for them to participate in society. The costs of these privileges are to be borne by the whole community of tax payers.
    “Why?” Do some people ask. “Because it is the ethical thing to do”, is usually the reply. However, it is almost always stressed in the same article that the extra care (and money)disabled people require to be able to participate in society makes them a burden to the community. Yeah, their participation is supposed to be a basic human right – but it is a damn expensive human right… Now, some able bodied people can only grudgingly accept that some of ‘their’ money is used to make the lives of disabled people easier. That’s why they start bitching when they see somebody with an invisible disability using special facilities: they feel like they are being robbed. It is bad enough, in their view, that they have to pay good money to enhance the quality of life of their defective fellow men (yes, I’m being aggressively sarcastic). If somebody who (in their all-knowing judgement) is not a defective is using these privileges, he or she is essentially unduly spending tax money, thereby committing fraud. And, as good citizens, some able bodied people feel the right to complain about that.
    I read YOUR argument as basically saying: stop bothering people who have a legitimate need and right to consume care. They are not indulging at the expense of the community just because they seem healthy. I agree with that viewpoint. But the main reason you gave for why people with an invisible disability have a right to care is because it enhances their personal quality of life. As you write about the woman on a plane: “She has an invisible disability, and needs some extra time to board and find her seat, so she is allowed to board early.” The extra boarding time is mostly beneficial to HER.
    I don’t begrudge her that boarding time. The problem is, many people DO. They see special facilities for the disabled as nothing but things to enhance the quality of life of the disabled. These people tend to say: Why do I have to pay money to enhance the quality of life of a stranger? I am disadvantaged myself, nobody is giving me money! Their life maybe rotten, but so is mine! Why am I paying money to make a stranger’s life better?
    I personally feel that people with a disability deserve help from the state to enhance their quality of life. However, if I get help from the state, I want it to be known that this does not only make my personal life better, but it also enables me to contribute to the society I live in. If I get help, I’m not only consuming tax money, I am also creating a hell of a lot of tax money by having a job. So if you point out that somebody is using a tool because he has an invisible disability, don’t just point out that the person has a right to that tool for personal reasons, but also becauses it enables him to contribute to the community. Otherwise many able bodied will not stop complaining, and that, I thought, is what you set out to achieve.

  6. Your English is much better than my Dutch!

    And I appreciate your articulation of your point, because you do make an important distinction which I failed to make. It is indeed important to recognize that not only do accommodations improve quality of life for the disabled, but they also benefit society as a whole. I think there’s a whole separate essay topic in that, and it would also be interesting to explore the fact that many people want to be able to contribute to society, so benefiting society actually feeds back in to quality of life.

    I do think, however, that it’s kind of sad that the able bodied need to be told how accommodations benefit them in order to impress upon them the importance of accommodations. You are absolutely correct that “contributing to society” gets thrown around a lot in rhetoric about how public funds are spent, not just on accommodations, but on social services in general.

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