Invisible Disabilities

Alan Rasof Invisible DisabilitiesEvery so often, an article circulates about some horrible citizen who parked in a handicap spot and exhibited no need to. Often accompanied by secret smartphone footage and quiet snide commentary, the outrage usually emerges because there is no visible evidence that someone is suffering from a disability. As it turns out, though, there are countless invisible disabilities that could render an otherwise simple trip to the grocery store excruciatingly difficult or painful.

Invisible disabilities include those that impair the individual from navigating life as comfortably as those with fully-functional bodies, but whose handicaps may not be as obvious. Take, for example, someone with severe hearing loss. Or someone with “burning syndrome,” a nervous disorder that renders the person extremely sensitive to any touch so much so that their skin feels on fire all the time. Those people still need a little extra help as they traverse the world, but a passerby would have no idea.

For a long time, invisible disabilities were treated as either totally hallucinated or as miracles from God. For long stretches of human history, women could be diagnosed with “hysteria,” when in fact they were dealing with something that today we would call depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Many who suffered from what we call epilepsy were thought to be prophets — the “dreams” they had were trademarks of the cognitive disorders associated with epileptic episodes, and some even think that Joan of Arc herself suffered from epilepsy.

One woman in Boston recently wrote about her difficulty riding the train to and from locations because of an autoimmune disease that eats away at her tendons, making mobility difficult and terribly painful. For some time, it was awkward for her to ask strangers to cough up their seats for someone who appears to be perfectly healthy, but then she began using a cane and slowly mustering the courage to verbally ask people if she could sit in their chair.

Today, though, we have a much better understanding of the physical and cognitive disabilities that may not be as obvious as missing legs or speech impediment. Our ability to accommodate such people, however, is still in the works.  
Towards the end of last year, England rolled out a program for their public transport in which some passengers wore small blue campaign pins that read, “Please Offer Me a Seat.” London offered these free buttons to 1000 riders with invisibilities so that they didn’t have to feel so awkward asking for a seat on the subways. After a few months, the city counted the experiment a total success, with more than three quarters of the button-donning passengers reporting that their riding experience had indeed improved.