PERSPECTIVES | Just because you can’t see it…

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018
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Many people believe they can identify a disability simply by looking at a person: a wheelchair user, or someone with Down syndrome, for example. Even the universal sign for disability reinforces this point — it is a person using a wheelchair.

There are millions of Americans with invisible disabilities, such as mental illness, chronic pain, and epilepsy. However, many people aren’t even aware that these conditions are actually considered disabilities.

When people can’t immediately see a person’s disability, they may assume the person doesn’t have a disability, or may be judgmental because they can’t see it for themselves. “It's that [people with disabilities] often look completely ‘normal,’ or at least don't fit our sense of ‘disability’ as it's normally defined,” explains Bustle writer JR Thorpe. “We're prepared to categorize people without limbs or with severe, obvious difficulty in mobility as disabled, but when it comes to something like an insulin pump or severe depression, we balk. If they can walk to the store, surely they must be fine, right? Wrong.”

Invisible disabilities are often stigmatized by assumptions that the person is “faking it,” or isn’t “trying hard enough” to fight it. American culture reinforces this stigma with its insistence that any “hardship” — including disability — can be overcome, if only one applies oneself.

Fearing discrimination based on these misperceptions, people with invisible disabilities often carefully weigh whether to disclose their disability; even though they must do so in order to receive the accommodations they need to be successful at school or at work. “Not disclosing and requesting accommodations can be detrimental to the performance evaluations of a student or worker if the disability interferes with required tasks,” writes Alecia M. Santuzzi in Psychology Today. “Without knowing that a disability is involved, teachers, supervisors, and co-workers are left to assume that unexpected poor or inconsistent performance accurately reflects the person’s ability to do the tasks.”

This choice has created a divide in the disability community between those who may prefer to selectively disclose their disability and those who cannot. According to Cara Liebowitz in her blog That Crazy Crippled Chick, “Even if there are people who can be neatly categorized into ‘visibly’ and ‘invisibly’ disabled, what does that accomplish, besides dividing the disability community even more than it's already divided?” she asks, and explains that neither invisibly nor visibly disabled people have it easier. “It's not ‘better’ to be one or the other, if such defined categories even exist. It's a different experience - just like all experiences of disability are unique.”