‘Seeing is believing’ - this is something most of us have either always been told or believed.
Of course, humans depend heavily on their vision. We use our sight to make sense of the world around us and the people in it. And in spite of proverbs warning us “not to judge a book by its cover,” that’s often exactly what we do. If someone doesn’t “look” sick many people refuse to accept that they are. Unfortunately, people often judge others by what they see and conclude a person can or cannot do something by the way they look. This attitude can be equally frustrating for those who may appear unable but are perfectly capable, as well as those who seem able, but are not. There’s some who have discovered that this approach of relying purely on what we see can be problematic as well, and I would like to highlight this with regards to disabilities in this case.
When asked to picture a person who is differently abled, we usually think of someone on a wheelchair, using a walker or crutches, and some of us may think of someone who is blind.
The commonality between all 3 situations above is that these disabilities are ‘visible’ to our eyes directly, and thus evoke our pity and the recognition that the individual is disabled. But what happens to those disabilities which we cannot see? Does it mean that they don’t exist?
To define invisible disability in simple terms is a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities that is invisible to the onlooker. Unfortunately, the very fact that these signs are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions, and judgments. When we define invisible disability, it helps us understand the subtle differences and challenges each person experiences in their daily lives. It refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments. These are not always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes or always limit daily activities, range from mild challenges to severe limitations, and vary from person to person. Either way, this term should not be used to describe a person as weaker or lesser than anyone else!
A billion people worldwide live with some kind of disability, according to the World Health Organization.
Furthermore, one survey found that 74% of those with disabilities don’t use a wheelchair or anything else that might visually signal their impairment to the outside world. If someone uses a wheelchair, or is visually impaired, it can be easier to understand the difficulties they might face and to support them. For those with so-called invisible impairments, such as depression, anxiety or chronic pain, it’s often a different story. Colleagues may not spot the challenges they are experiencing, and may find it hard to comprehend or believe someone with a “hidden” impairment genuinely needs help. We can’t see depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses physically, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist - it is only those who are living with these problems who feel the anguish and agony of the suffering. To complicate matters, like many chronic conditions, mental illnesses tend to ebb and flow in severity — some days, weeks, and months go really well, and during others it’s difficult to work, socialize, and function, confusing those who can’t “see” why one day is good and another a challenge.
One of the reasons people with invisible disabilities don’t open up and talk about their disabilities is that there is a fear of being labeled. Living with an invisible illness often leads to judgement and criticism because others believe an individual look fine on the outside, and therefore must be “making up” their suffering. Unlike having a condition that’s observable, those with invisible illnesses often face a lack of social awareness and additional stigma, As a result, these individuals often face more skepticism, and are accused of being lazy or moody and in need of cheering up, going out more, calming down, or a host of other dismissive judgements. Invisible doesn’t mean unimportant or non-existent.
Although the awareness of mental illness and invisible disabilities has been increasing recently, for the idea of an invisible illness to be real in our society, awareness must continue to increase. Through this education and discussion, compassion can become the societal reaction to individuals who are suffering in silence. This peaked awareness and heightened compassion will help them feel understood. It will be easier for them to see that while their disorder may be invisible, they are not.
We are all human beings, and we all have rights to the same things, even if those things are harder to attain for some of us. Just because symptoms aren’t physically there when looking at a person struggling does not mean they are not struggling internally. We need to understand and that there’s more to a person than what we can see on the outside. We need to take a stand, empathise and spread the awareness - it is only then that the invisible disabilities can become visible. Every person has a purpose, uniqueness, and value, no matter what hurdles they may face.
Let us be mindful of those around us, we never know the silent battles they are fighting!
Written by: Vedica Podar