Blogging Against Disablism–Invisible Disabilities

Rachel’s Note:  This is reposted from my site, but I figured it should also be posted on Alas.   

Admin’s Note: Here’s my weak-ass contribution to blog against disablism day.  I’m in the middle of finals, but I figured I need to say something.  I guess I made one mini-contribution over at Hugo’s because I really disliked his response to Mr. Soul, but that is not really enough.

So let me just say at little bit since I have one hour left today. This is not edited or proofed, please read around my typos.

Most of what I know about disability issues I learned from my good friend Kate.  She posts around here and over at Alas sometimes.  Kate was by closest grad school buddy.  When were we up at school working in our offices until 11 PM, we’d have conversations about everything.  A big part of that “everything was sociology.”  I told Kate about racism research and she taught me about disability research (and we both already knew about feminism).  Kate taught me the academic stuff–disability vs. impairment, but she also taught me about the lived experience of disability.  Kate has a genetic neuromuscular disorder, and from listening to her tell me her story (or watching her live through it) I have changed the way I think about disability. 

One of the big issues we have discussed is the difference between having a visible or hidden disability.  Kate has a semi-hidden disability.  Sometimes a person may notice it, and sometimes s/he may not noticed the disability.  For people with hidden disabilities one of the big issues is coming out.  Who should people tell other about their disability?  When should they say something, and when should they be quiet?  This issue permeates many aspect of life–for example, dating.  When or how should a person tell their the boyfriend/girlfriend about disability?  Will the boyfriend/girlfriend run away or be uncomfortable?  Or what about your kids?  If a child has a hidden disability, when do you tell the child or the child’s care giver?  Or in the case of these genetic disabilities, should a parent test his or her child for the disability?  If the child does test positive, will the child face genetic discrimination?

I’m not saying people with hidden disabilities have any more trouble than those with visible disabilities, but I am saying that the way people navigate their social lives is affected by whether or not a disability is hidden or visible.  When most people think of disability, they think of the a person in a wheel chair (in fact, the wheel chair is almost a universal symbol of disability).  They don’t realize that the person sitting next to them doesn’t have a twisted ankle, but a neuromuscular disability.  They don’t know that their coworker has suffered with depression for years or that the reason their student leave in the middle of class everyday is because s/he has a back injury.  Many disabilities are like this–dyslexia, epilepsy, some vision or hearing impairments. 

Coming out about a disability can cause shame and fear that the person revealing the disability is “just looking for sympathy.”  Sometimes coming out about a disability means having to acknowledge an identity as a disabled person, and accepting such a label is not easy. (In fact, I think it is quite similar to coming out for people in queer communities.)

So I guess one of the things that Kate taught me is that many people with disabilities are not going to come out.  It is really risky, and it is incumbent upon all of us to make that coming out process easier.  I try to do this by including a disabilities statement in my syllabus.  Here is how it is worded:

If you have a hidden or visible disability, which may require classroom or test-taking modifications, please see me as soon as possible. If you require note taking, extra exam time, or any other disability related services, please be sure to call M. F. in the Disability Support Services Office at xxx-xxx.

It’s not perfectly worded, but I always mention it as a way to let my students know that I am conscientious about disability issues.  I also try to make it clear that I am aware that not all disabilities are readily apparent.

Ok, maybe it’s not so weak… to bed.

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7 Responses to Blogging Against Disablism–Invisible Disabilities

  1. 1
    Mandolin says:

    I think some of the issues about hidden disabilities may generalize to psychological disabilities. That’s interesting; I hadn’t thought about it before.

  2. 2
    devan says:

    i really REALLY appreciate this post. i have somewhat of an invisible disability in that i have severe disabling anxiety with ocd tendencies etc.

    school was an extreme struggle for me and i was essentially expelled for how i dealt with it. meaning they sent me to a school for kids with drug and “behavioral” problems because i slept through class because it was too hard to deal with. the school they sent me to treated me terribly and made my anxiety much worse.

    i was afraid to tell anyone at school about my anxiety problems because i felt embarrassed and thought they wouldn’t understand. i was given no help at all.

    all of this has been extremely difficult to deal with and in many ways has ruined big chunks of my life.

    i feel amazing knowing there are teachers out there who care reguardless of whether your disability is visible or not.

  3. 4
    Mandolin says:

    (In case anyone else is confused, I checked the post above, and it looks like disablism and ablism have the same meaning in this context. [I was a bit afraid I was going to see some weird rant about how disabled people are oppressing abled people.])

  4. 5
    Rachel S. says:

    Yeah, Mandolin–I always use the term ablism, but Goldfish, who hosts the day used the term disablism. I’m not really sure which one is better from a theoretical view.

    If I can’t find a theoretical reason for using a term, I tend to go with the shorter word. :)

  5. 6
    Blue says:

    Goldfish is in Britain, IIRC, so perhaps that accounts for the term difference, but Steve Kuusisto of Planet of the Blind has defined a difference between the two terms that I rather like for its specificity:

    Disablism is in my view the organized and determined use of power to prevent people with disabilities from becoming full members of society…. Disablism is an organized and conscious affair. It differs from ableism which is simply a fear and misunderstanding about disability. The person who wants to pray for me on the public bus is an ableist.

    On invisible disabilities: I’ve seen a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence that students with invisible disabilities receive a lot of disrespect and refusal for legally required accommodations in American universities and colleges. For example, being told by a professor to drop a class because they won’t offer extra time for a test or allow someone to tape record lectures. I imagine problems with workplace accommodation are similar in frequency, but less likely to be heard about unless they lead to major litigation.

  6. 7
    Jesse the K says:

    More on the wording tangent: I find both “disablism” and “ablism” problematic. I propose “normativity” (the tendency to believe that ‘normal’ is a meaningful and superior category), or more specifically “normate bigotry.”