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Some disabilities and illnesses are visible—and while these can sometimes lead to people treating you differently, rarely do others question whether or not something is amiss.
But that’s not the case for those suffering from “invisible” disabilities. But don’t take this to mean that one form is better, or worse, or more worthy of attention; all human ailments are equally worthy of our attention and understanding.
The point here is that many people have to live with “invisible” disabilities that can cause some pretty serious challenges in their workplace, home, and community. These conditions can include anything from lupus, to bipolar disorder, or even things like diabetes, Chrohn’s disease, and fibromyalgia.
However, it doesn’t matter how much you’re suffering, inside or out; if others cannot see it, many seem to feel that the problem doesn’t exist, or isn’t legitimate. The founder and head of the Invisible Disabilities Association, Wayne Connell, confirms that people seem to have difficulty understanding these kinds of hardships: “You know, it’s that invisible nature of an illness that people don’t understand.”
Connell knows what he’s talking about, considering his wife has been diagnosed with Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis.
“We’d park in disabled parking and she didn’t use a wheelchair or a cane, and so people would always give us dirty looks and scream at us. When they see someone in a wheelchair, OK, they get that they’re in a wheelchair. But what if they have chronic pain, what if they have PTSD—anything from cancer to peripheral neuropathy to autism?”
This stigma is often the cause of much strife for those suffering from an invisible disability. To the point where some folks cannot even secure accommodations from an employer. Joyce Smithey, a labor and employment lawyer, says that when people with these disabilities request aid from employers they frequently receive the response, “We don’t do that as a policy.”
“And that’s a problem,” says Smithey. “Because that person is not asking to partake of a benefit that’s offered in a policy; that person is asking for an accommodation they’re entitled to under the law.”
You see, because their suffering cannot be visually confirmed—at least not easily—doubt plays a huge role. As Connell said, you wouldn’t throw tomatoes at someone in a wheelchair for parking in a handicapped space. Yet, people often judge others harshly to the point where they treat those with invisible illnesses as if they are taking advantage, or demanding special treatment.
Although it may be older data, a 2004 publication from Partnership for Solutions posits that nearly 10% of Americans suffer from a disability that can be considered “invisible” by all rights. That number has surely increased over the past decade. Yet, with so many people suffering, there still seems to be a great deal of hardship surrounding the classification.
It’s not just about the public perception of these disabilities, either. The whole gamut from doctors, to employers, government assistance agents and insurance companies have even been known to give disabled persons a difficult time. Some of these disabilities and illnesses are hard for doctors to diagnose, carrying many symptoms that could easily fall under other common problems. Employers, on the other hand, often refuse to acknowledge an issue as described by Smithey above. The same patterns occur with government assistance agents and insurance companies, especially in cases where a doctor has not properly diagnosed their patient.
The most unfortunate thing is that the scenarios described is neither an assumption nor conjecture; ask anyone who suffers from Chrohn’s, multiple sclerosis, or a similar ailment, and they will share stories of various hardships they’ve encountered.
Carly Medosch, an attractive 33 year-old woman, has suffered from Chrohn’s disease since she was 13, she is now 33. You’d never know from the outside that something is wrong, but rest assured: she has thoroughly “earned” her status as a disabled person. Medosch recalls a time when she had “been laying on the floor in the bathroom, kind of thinking, ‘Am I going to die? Should I jump out in front of traffic so that I can die?’ Because you’re just in so much pain.”
To make matters worse, Medosch was also recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia, another invisible disability, which leaves patients suffering from an untraceable state of chronic full-body pain and intense fatigue. Those suffering from fibromyalgia often have a hard time doing simple things without feeling pain, like walking up a flight of stairs or carrying their child from their car into their home.
“Washing my hair, blow-drying my hair, putting on makeup, those kinds of activities can exhaust me very quickly,” Medosch describes. “So you kind of blow-dry your hair and then you sort of sit down for a little bit.”
But Medosch says that there is a benefit to a disability that’s not immediately evident.
“I kind of call it being able to pass,” she says. “So I can pass as a normal, healthy, average person, which is great and definitely helps ease my everyday life—especially in interactions with strangers, getting your foot in the door in a situation like a job interview.”
People often argue against those suffering with a “but you look good” sentiment. It shouldn’t be like that, for anyone suffering from a health issue. It shouldn’t matter whether the problem is visible or not.
The best thing we can do to help is educate ourselves, and others, on the matter. Take some time to research what these different illnesses and disabilities do to the body. Get a better understanding for how these unfortunate people have to live their day-to-day lives. Become passionate and sympathetic, not just for them, but for yourself, as well. You never know when you might run into health issues of your own and, in turn, might require the same hard-earned empathy.