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Invisible disabilities, post-secondary education and compassion

By Frankie Berardino, November 23 2021—

Invisible disabilities can be loosely described as a branch of disabilities that are not immediately noticeable to the average person, but still impact the way they go about their lives. Crohn’s Disease, Chronic Pain and mental illnesses such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), just to name a few, affect a significant portion of Canadians that live with them silently, in fear of judgement from others. Living with an invisible disability can be challenging in many circumstances, especially in post-secondary settings. 

Between the constant bombardment of academic pressures, societal expectations and the stigmas associated with invisible disabilities, many post-secondary students with these disabilities find themselves falling through the cracks of the academic system. Additionally, students with invisible disabilities often feel misunderstood or invalidated because their disability isn’t apparent to others. However, as a member of the University of Calgary community, there are a multitude of ways you can support those living with invisible disabilities.

Break down your assumptions of invisible disabilities:

Perhaps a student seldom comes to class, or one of your friends is rarely able to explain why they feel so exhausted all the time. Invisible disabilities are called invisible disabilities for a reason — they are not visible at first glance. You may think they are lazy or boring, when in reality, this is likely not the case. There may be more going on in the bigger picture of their life than what you see. For example, a student with Dysgraphia may be unable to write down all the necessary information in the allotted lecture time, potentially making it difficult for them to excel in said class if they are missing some material — especially if accommodations are not in place. Realizing that there is no one appearance for invisible disabilities is significant because it helps to break down the stigma of people with invisible illnesses being less capable than non-disabled folks. Similarly, being gentle with the people in your life, regardless of closeness, can be a great way to make them feel appreciated and less guilty about being unable to be there as much as they’d like to be. 

Have compassion, trust, and learn to listen:

A good place to start is understanding that even if you cannot see an invisible illness you can still have compassion for other students who seem to be struggling. Everyone’s disability is different, and you can know two different people with the same invisible illness — yet they have vastly different experiences and struggles. The reality is that, as a non-disabled person, the best thing you can do is to be compassionate. Being compassionate can look like listening generously within your boundaries, trusting that they are sharing their experience the best they can and keeping your judgements to yourself. Understanding you may be unable to understand everything is also key, as it allows you to be empathetic toward the person with the invisible disability — while also making them feel accepted and recognized. On top of that, many people with invisible disabilities feel like they need to fight for their diagnosis, potentially as it isn’t as visible as other disabilities. By nature of invisible illnesses, many people around the person with the invisible disability don’t believe they are struggling initially. Certain comments like ‘well, you don’t look like you’re on the spectrum’ or ‘you don’t seem sad because I often see you smiling’ to someone with depression can feel incredibly invalidating to their experience. 

Get to know the terminology:

Getting to know the basic terminology and correct phrasing for invisible illnesses to use for people in the disabled community can be very helpful. Referring to someone with any disability and describing them as a victim or the sufferer of their condition is highly problematic as it actively dehumanizes them and suggests they are helpless. Instead, referring to them as a person with their said disability is much more appropriate. For example, “he has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS),” or “They have ADHD,” rather than statements like “They suffer from ADHD.” An article from the Student Accessibilities Services (SAS) at Brown University outlines some general suggestions for “speaking to and about people with disabilities” and is a great place to get started if you want to be part of the solution. Another informative article from the Students with Disabilities as Diverse Learners comprises a small list of the many invisible disabilities, how they impact students and the very real challenges that non-disabled persons should be aware of.

Let the folks with invisible disabilities tell their story:

Ultimately, if you are a person without an invisible disability then you will never understand what it’s like to live with one — no matter how much knowledge and understanding you gain. But, as a non-disabled individual you can step back from the conversation and allow space for the person living with the disability to explain their story and describe how they navigate the world. You can support them when they need it, however, people with invisible disabilities do not have to explain anything about their disability or justify anything to you. 

Some people may be unaware they have a disability or don’t see themselves this way. Potentially, they may not know if they should share their story or if they want to, they may be unable to articulate it. Like everyone else, people with invisible disabilities have the right to privacy and do not have to share everything. So don’t pressure or make them feel like they owe you an explanation, because they don’t. Similarly, an individual with an invisible disability cannot speak on behalf of every person with invisible disabilities. There are common themes for many people, but everyone’s experience is different and understanding this can allow for more people to share their stories. 

At the University of Calgary, the Student Success Centre, Student Accessibility Services Advisors, and Wellness Services like counselling are great tools if you are someone with an invisible disability or think you may be, and need support.

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