“YOU don’t have a disability!” my friend’s wife scolded me in a shocked and horrified voice, as we ate breakfast at a local greasy spoon one morning.
When my friend’s wife looked at me, she saw a woman chowing down on her heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfast: no evidence of a (dis)ability in sight. Further discussion revealed she was distressed that I would label myself ‘that way.’ After all, I didn’t look as if I had anything “wrong” with me.
But what does a person with a disability look like? Apparently, on that sunny Saturday morning, I didn’t fit the image of disability my friend’s wife had in her head. The vast majority of students with disabilities who attend university or college don’t either. They have a so-called “invisible” disability, just like I do.
I often think of my own disability as “invisible” because, with the right accommodations in place, I am able to go about my life without having to think about my disability too much. With daily medication, accommodations and evasive manoeuvres, my disability can be quite invisible. Take me out of my accommodated environment, however, and even I am sometimes startled by how quickly my so-called invisible disability becomes visible.
Perhaps because of the seeing is believing principle, people with invisible disabilities can also struggle to have their disability and accommodations recognized and supported. My brother-in-law was in a severe car accident 10 years ago. Once his physical injuries had healed, many people commented how amazing it was that he was “back to normal.”
However, he sustained a traumatic brain injury that affects his life (and the life of his family and work) substantially to this day. He looks perfectly ‘normal,’ so it has been difficult for him to get the appropriate ongoing accommodations at his job after the initial crisis stage. Maintaining his performance is extremely stressful, which makes the effects of his brain injury even more invasive to him. Yet, because his physical wounds have healed to the outside observer, he continually faces people who doubt his need for accommodations.
Having a disability can run the gambit from being a complete non-issue, to being invasive, to being an opportunity and a proud part of one’s identity. With appropriate accommodations and a supportive world that is more aware of them, all people with invisible disabilities can contribute their full potential.
My friend’s wife was shocked when I comfortably revealed that I had a disability. She was even more shocked to realize that I was being successfully accommodated that very day at breakfast, so that it was “invisible”—to her. My heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfast was doctor recommended: all that salty food helps me avert fainting episodes.
Bring on the bacon.
Christine Fader works as a career counsellor at a Canadian university and is the author of the book, “Career Cupid: Your Guide to Landing and Loving Your Dream Job”. She was a member of the Ontario Government’s Employment Standards Development Committee which created new legislation to increase accessibility in Ontario by 2025. Visit her at www.careercupid.com