Why invisible disabilities matter

Jerry Silvester 23 September 2021

Disabilities, by definition, are varied. Some are visible, others are less so, yet both are unequivocally valid. 

Do you remember the first time you felt desperately misunderstood? Perhaps it was the look of disbelief in the face of a loved one, or maybe a perfect stranger made an assumption that undermined something that mattered to you. Or possibly you’ve not been inured to the vicissitude of such doubt at all. Either way, this is for you.

Unconscious bias exists within us all. No matter how microscopic, we each undoubtedly hold biased beliefs that have carefully serpentined themselves to our core. It’s human nature to move through life soaking up contexts, words and presumed implications and to continually develop our understanding of the world as we know it. Yet, until we look closer, our very own little unconscious bias monster sits dormant, twiddling its thumbs, arbitrarily conceiving ideas of what it thinks something is… or isn’t.

Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture what comes to mind when you think of a disabled person. Do they have a physical disability? The answer is most likely yes.

Autism

If this is the primary image that springs to mind when hearing the word “disability”, does this mean as a society we expect to be able to tell from a glance when somebody has a disability? While this may not be consciously done, it can have painful consequences.

The term “invisible disability” is thought to have been coined in the early twentieth century, with the return of First World War soldiers who were experiencing shell shock.

Now in 2021, it’s used to describe a multi-faceted range of health conditions that notably impact someone physically and/or mentally in their day to day life yet are not immediately discernible to others. They vary exponentially in severity and can present themselves both unpredictably and discretely.

Examples include: autism, deafness, and epilepsy, mental health conditions such as; OCD, anxiety disorder and PTSD, as well as chronic illnesses such as; lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, cancer, and heart disease.

"They vary exponentially in severity and can present themselves both unpredictably and discretely"

One way in which unconscious bias is most pronounced is within the barriers to entry of employment. Do you think an employer may neglect to recognise the potential of a candidate if they find out that they have a disability? Unfortunately, statistics show that they do.

Research conducted by disability employment charity Leonard Chesire, reported that 17 per cent of people have had a job offer withdrawn as a direct result of disclosing their disability. Invisible disability employment charity Astriid found that 80 per cent of people with chronic illnesses experience great difficulty finding job roles that are manageable with their health issues.

This lack of inclusivity not only acts as an apparatus that cheats people out of accessing financial independence, but also robs them of their right to contribute meaningfully to the world.

OCD

OCD is a common unseen disability

Veterinary nurse Fiona, 30, who has Multiple Sclerosis, was displaying her blue parking badge in her car when she was confronted by a traffic warden, who was challenging whether or not she was, in fact, disabled. The parking attendant went on to abuse and shame her. Fiona was devastated by this encounter and said, “I have never felt so small in my entire life”.

A national survey conducted by Fish Insurance found that 39 per cent of people believe that if someone doesn’t appear to be having difficulty walking, then they do not have the right to display a blue badge.

Extraordinarily, 76 per cent said that they would be happy for someone to use a disabled parking space, without displaying a badge at all, but only if they were in a wheelchair.

While no piece of writing can simplify an incredibly sensitive and complex issue, through willingness, research and discussion, there are many efficacious changes we can make.

"Extraordinarily, 76 per cent said that they would be happy for someone to use a disabled parking space, without displaying a badge at all, but only if they were in a wheelchair"

It’s crucial that we question our own discomfort. Why does this person not fit the stereotype of disability that feels familiar to me? Could there be more to this situation than I am aware of? It’s also crucial to always approach with care. Be sure to consider when is the most appropriate time to start the conversation.

Wherever you are, proactively observe your environments and how these may be accessible for others. Statistics show that 1 in 10 people currently live with an invisible disability, so the odds are, at least one person you work with, or share public transport with on your daily commute, is living with a disability that you have absolutely no idea about.

When it comes to language, be sure to research appropriate terms. It’s important to remember that every disabled person will have their own personal preferences too. Language is wildly impactful, so keep that in mind and be thoughtful with your words.

Broadening your exposure to art and media that includes disabled writers, creators, actors, and artists, is a step towards dismantling the currency and power that often excludes the work of marginalised groups. You’re likely to find many people you already admire fit into this bracket: Frida Kahlo, Joan Didion, Elton John, Anthony Hopkins, Selena Gomez, Elon Musk, Venus Williams, Richard Branson, Billie Eilish, to name a few.

While there are undeniably courageous and resilient people living with invisible disabilities, they do not exist to be inspirational figures. Admire them as a human being, not as a person with a disability.

Remember that appearances are usually indicative of very little deeper meaning. Don’t assume someone's circumstances because of their gender identity, race, or age.

A young healthy-looking man, may very well have an invisible disability. We urgently need to burn the book that said disability is only elderly ladies in wheelchairs. Disability does not discriminate.

"Disability does not discriminate"

The disparity between the care, respect, and opportunities for those with invisible disabilities, and those without, is undeniably an increasing issue that we all need to consider.

Is our desire for normalcy, (something that is ostensibly an instinctive yearning), actually just an intolerant feeder of oppression, discrimination and segregation?

The systemic issue of unconscious bias in our culture collectively dehumanises the experience of those living with invisible disabilities, and arguably eradicates any agency they have in their own lives.

Accessibility isn’t just subtitles on a tv show or a ramp in a restaurant. It’s about time we fought to normalise the concept that disabled rights are invisible disability rights, and these are human rights.

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