Living with an invisible disability: student experiences

A  significant proportion of the population live with invisible conditions or disabilities that have a huge impact on their day to day lives.

An invisible disability is one that is not immediately apparent from an individual’s appearance. Some examples of these include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), severe allergies, mental health disorders, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and diabetes.

The term disability is often associated with a visual aid such as a walking stick or a wheelchair, but the reality is that a huge percentage of those living with disabilities can’t be identified so easily.

Through social media, The Student invited students with invisible disabilities to share their experiences.

One respondent who lives with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome shared how their condition impacts their university life.

“I have gut problems that came about during recovering from an eating disorder”, they said: “My IBS-like symptoms flare up when I am stressed about uni work for example (the main trigger). It becomes hard for me to be in public without feeling uncomfortable from my distended belly and bloating and flatulence.

“Build up of gas means I can hardly sit still if I’m class or studying in the library hence why I have stopped going to uni as we get closer to deadlines because I am super stressed and being around others and being an already very anxious person makes my symptoms worse.

“There’s not much I can do other than stay at home and try get work done from here because this is where I am most comfortable during these episodes. However, I’m not seeing friends as much and I’m finding it increasingly harder to stay focused at home so I’m not getting much work done.”

Another respondent who lives with dyslexia spoke about a lack of understanding of the condition: “I’m dyslexic, but not severely, like the words don’t dance round the page or anything.

“I also happen to be a really good writer, and want to do that for a living. I really do struggle with reading, however. When I tell people, I have dyslexia they often don’t believe me. They don’t realize that dyslexia doesn’t control everything I do”.

Chloe Marvin, Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s Disabled Students’ Officer, has launched a campaign to raise awareness of invisible disabilities.

Marvin has organised the placement of signs highlighting invisible disabilities on accessible bathrooms across the university that read: “Thousands of people in the UK are living with invisible illnesses, disabilities and long-term health conditions that might not be physically obvious. If you see someone using this toilet who doesn’t ‘look’ how you think a disabled person should, please don’t question them.”

The Student spoke to Marvin, who said: “Discourse around disability often purports an image in people’s minds that someone must ‘look’ physically disabled in order to fit into the ‘disabled’ category.

“In fact, there are a whole range of things which come under the broad umbrella of disability, some of which are invisible. Physical access is so important, and we need to push to make university buildings more accessible.

“However, there are also other barriers facing disabled students that might be hidden. For example, for students with mental illness, in order to access their course, they might need learning adjustments.

“Students with chronic illness might need to use an accessible bathroom for an ‘invisible disability’ which is part of why I set up the ‘Not every disability is visible’ campaign on campus with signs on accessible bathrooms.

“Of course, part of accessing the support disabled students need comes with identifying under this umbrella, so students then feel comfortable to get involved in the Disabled Students Campaign and use services like the Student Disability Service.

“I think it’s important we dismantle a discourse that every disability is necessarily visible, as well as breaking the stigma around disability. I think that will go some way in ensuring that disabled students with a whole range of disabilities get the support they need.”

The lack of understanding that exists around invisible disabilities often makes it harder for those living with a condition or long term illness to ask for any support that they might need, or even discuss it with their friends.

One individual who responded to our survey said: “I hide my disability from even my closest friends because I don’t want them to know I’m different.”

For somebody who might not immediately appear to be disabled, the prospect of using an accessible bathroom or a disabled parking space can be intimidating, for fear that an ignorant bystander might call them out or criticise them for using facilities that they seem to not require.

In Kentucky during early November, Lexi Baskin, a cancer survivor’s car was vandalised while it was in a disabled parking space.

The car was covered in paper that read: “There are legit handicapped people who need this parking space.

“We have seen you and your friend come and go and there is nothing handicapped about either of you.

“We will make every effort to see you fined or towed for being such a selfish, terrible person.”

The perpetrator acknowledged Baskin’s disability parking placard, but assumed that it was fake or accessed illegally.

This ignorant act could have easily been avoided had the perpetrator, and wider public, been more informed about hidden disabilities.

 

Image: Ian Turk via Flickr

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