Freelance writer from Cornwall
‘But you don’t LOOK like there’s anything wrong with you..?’
A typical everyday remark often, but not always, accompanied by a raised eyebrow and tacit implication that you’re a malingerer, a benefit fraudster or possibly both. You’re not in a wheelchair or an iron lung or hobbling slowly on crutches or sticks. You don’t have withered muscles, missing limbs, burns or scars. You’re not blindly staggering around carrying your severed head under your arm like a biker’s crash helmet. You’re not shrieking with pain every time you so much as raise an eyebrow. People don’t actually SEE there’s a problem at all. So you must be perfectly healthy, right?
Erm, wrong actually.
Many disabled people, I happen to be one of them, have ‘invisible disabilities.’ Sometimes there’s very little or even nothing to indicate that we’re disabled. Not at a glance, at any rate. There may be no instantly obvious physical disfigurement, scars, burns, mobility problems or anything that would mark any of US as being any different to any of YOU. By US, I mean disabled people. By YOU, I mean so-called ‘normal’ people.
Invisible disabilities are a broad church. Autism, ME, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, diabetes, various forms of mental illness, fibromyalgia and many, many more problems can be as disabling as anything obvious like paralysis, a missing limb, blindness, deafness or whatever else you might notice about a person. Just because you don’t see invisible disabilities doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It doesn’t mean that anybody who has them and claims disability benefits is automatically a malingering crook sucking up taxpayer’s money, either. Someone who is invisibly disabled can find life every bit as difficult as someone whose problems are instantly obvious. It’s also tooth-grindingly frustrating encountering anything from mild scepticism to outright suspicion, just because I don’t look like some people think a disabled person should.
It’s not true or fair to say that the invisibly disabled have a deal any worse than those whose problems are instantly obvious. Let’s not play the ‘professional martyr’ card. But the invisibly disabled do have a particular problem within society. Lots of supposedly ‘normal’ people claim a miraculous ability to diagnose the full, exact extent of a person’s disabilities simply by glancing at them in the street. Aside from this truly miraculous gift (which Mother Nature withheld from medical science where it would be infinitely more useful), they can even tell, at a glance, that there’s actually little wrong with you at all, if anything. It’s all in your mind, you’re a hypochondriac, even if you’re actually ill you’d recover fully if you really wanted to, the fact that you haven’t is because you prefer emptying the taxpayer’s pocket to working, etc, etc, etc.
Well, people with terminal illnesses can often look perfectly healthy at first glance. Chances are that many people have walked past one on a pavement and not thought they were even ill, never mind dying. If it would be deeply offensive to ask them why they’re not dead yet (and it obviously would) then implying the invisibly disabled need to prove they’re ill enough to merit any particular consideration isn’t much of an improvement. It’s like saying the Elephant Man would be infinitely better-looking if he’d only take that Halloween mask off.
A particular problem area is mental illness. At a glance it’s not something you’re likely to notice, if the sufferer is any good at concealing it. Many mentally-ill people do try to conceal those problems (or at least the full extent thereof) having learnt from bitter experience that society doesn’t exactly embrace the mentally-ill, either. They’ll often try passing for sane like closeted gay or bisexual people try passing for straight. It’s as though they too ill for some people to want them around, but not ill enough to satisfy others they’re ill at all.
So, what does physical appearance count for when dealing with the disabled?
Absolutely nothing. At all.
And I’m not chopping off an arm or deliberately contracting leprosy, just so I look crippled enough to fit other people’s pre-concieved ideas of what a disabled person ought to look like, either.