Living with Invisible Disabilities

Trying to navigate with a wheelchair or cane is a challenge that many who are physically impaired face every day. They have specific approaches to life that allows them to live to their fullest potential. However, there are many hidden disabilities that are just as impactful. How we grow to understand ourselves and how we are expected to engage with the world are two different, and often contradictory, lenses through which persons with invisible disabilities have to live. It takes a lot of patience and strategy development. They have to learn how to express that they have a challenge that may impact a certain scenario they are going to find themselves in, and then educate other parties, if there are any, about how their challenges come into play with the situation.

For myself, I have long term memory loss and brain damage that impacts my navigation between different points. If I have to do more than one or two tasks within a given time frame I am fine. But if there are any more than two tasks, there is a chance that I will forget one of the three tasks provided. The biggest challenge is informing others in a comprehensive way what exactly my challenges entail, especially in the specific situation in which I may be working with them. Unlike the ease that an educational setting provides with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that protects the rights of people with disabilities when involved in programs and activities that receive Federal financial assistance, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In school this is referred to as a 504 plan and it outlines the needs of the student and details their challenges to the teacher and other school officials. My mom held a meeting before the beginning of the school year all the way until I completed high school to meet with my teachers and explain my accommodations, challenges, and the medical information related to my challenges.

After a student is finished with their primary education however, they experience a shift in dynamic for living with their disability. The 504 plan essentially ends after high school. So, when I got to college, it was up to me to coordinate my services that I needed for each term. At community college I met with my advisor every term to go over the new courses and determine what may be needed. The difference at university was it was on the student to ensure that they set up their services through an online platform. Since my biggest challenge was with memory, I would often forget about putting in the requests for my services for the following term. Usually I would get a reminder from the coordinator on that day, but I still had to make sure I checked the right boxes for the services.

Getting help with an invisible disability is a challenge because sometimes the main struggle is identifying whether help is needed or not. It’s a juggling act of being thrown into different situations in life. While what is being thrown is consistent, but the pattern of the throws can change over time and different contexts. Hidden disabilities impact the lives of the individuals who have them, but they have just as big an impact on the people who come and go in their lives because there is a set way in how we coexist. Some people are more comfortable than others with disclosing their challenges, and sometimes the challenges don’t allow them to express themselves to others. This can lead to people with invisible disabilities not having an equal opportunity throughout life.

People with disabilities are four times more likely to be unemployed, according to Jessica Holland in her piece about the hidden challenges of invisible disabilities. Advocacy and gaining the trust from teachers, parents, advisors, and other people in school, life or the workplace, is key in creating a community that can help those with invisible disabilities succeed in all that they aspire to do in life. Additionally there are resources specifically for persons with these disabilities.

Employment is not the only obstacle for people with invisible disabilities, but transportation as well. However, London, England is trying to change this through a change in mindset. Holland wrote about the hidden challenges of invisible disabilities and found that in London, there was a Look Up campaign that used posters, ads, station and driver announcements to ask people traveling on public transport to look up and see if anyone might need their seat. There are also more than 200 step-free stations across Transport for London’s network. The campaign launched in 2017 and since then more than 30, 000 badges have been issued to customers with invisible disabilities.

A big part in managing an invisible disability is making it actively visible through contextualizing it to the different walks of life that we might find ourselves in. Having people who know about your challenges helps, but knowing how to express those challenges for yourself becomes a more beneficial means for living life to the fullest.