Apart from a slightly “funny” walk and very occasional flapping hand movements, all the parts of me that are disabled are invisible. They are concentrated on the inside of my body and if I’m out and about (wearing clothes as you usually do) no one would label me as having a disability. There are many many people like me. Millions. Although this is slowly changing, the universal sign for disability/accessibility is the classic stick figure in a wheelchair.
People who have never spent time with members of the chronic illness community associate the word with people missing limbs or with visible conditions that have been “recognized” (and judged) for many years. I thought the same until I educated myself on invisible illness.
It first came to me when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. To the outside world who hadn’t seen her change in physical appearance the way I had, she looked fine, especially with a hat or wig on. However, I realized that she had become disabled. That she needed that seat on the bus because she could not physically stand, despite having two legs. That she needed assistance in settings like grocery stores and moved slower than other people, even if it was “just” from exhaustion. But nobody knew it. Nobody could see it. People thought we were being “those people” who sit in the disabled seats because they don’t feel like walking through the bus.
Then I realized that that was me. That my conditions combined made me want and need assistance in certain places which I couldn’t get. As I simultaneously got sicker and began understanding myself better it became more difficult to push through situations such as airports which were simply too much for me. But because I looked fine, I felt and absorbed the mean looks or the judgement coming from others. Even those coming from my own family.
In the last four years I have learned of the disabling quality of pain. Unless you are physically writhing around or screaming, pain is invisible to those around you. People with chronic pain bear it every single day with minimal help and understanding from society. It goes without saying that mental illness goes under invisible disability as well. Those around you can’t see your brain, can’t hear what it is telling you and won’t know the internal distress you are feeling at any given moment.
For disability pride month it is so important to embrace people with invisible disabilities too. We already feel a lot of doubt, maybe guilt for asking for help when we get answered with judgment. It is also a daily struggle and can be humiliating to have to give detailed explanations of our conditions in public situations as a way to “justify” our needs.
The “sunflower lanyard program” is aiming to help. Many places in Europe have rolled out the lanyard which people can wear as a discreet sign that they have a condition. On some airport websites, it states that staff will be ready to assist when they see the sunflower symbol and it specifies that they will not ask questions. Although it is slow to get integrated many places, the goal is for people who want to, to wear them wherever they want to to avoid the awkwardness that often comes with invisible suffering.
Your disability is valid no matter what it looks like or doesn’t look like!