Take a seat: Living with an invisible illness
Imagine you’re a young person, seated on a busy train, surrounded by older people. An elderly person approaches you and makes eye contact. Socially, it is expected that you will stand up and offer them the seat—except you can’t. This is because, despite looking like a healthy person, you have an invisible illness.
Usually when I first tell people that I have cerebral palsy they are taken aback. We all have biases and expectations of what a person with a disability looks like. These are informed and reinforced by media representations of disability. Most people who meet me have never considered the intense muscle pain, fatigue, and susceptibility to illness I experience. The language we use to describe disability also plays an important role in our view of disabilities. Today, activists in this space push for the term “person with a disability” over “disabled person”, in order to move away from the idea that a disability should be the defining characteristic of a person, and that all experiences of disability are homogenous.
There are countless chronic conditions that don’t always present themselves overtly. Until recently, chronic fatigue, an often debilitating and long-term illness that produces flu-like symptoms and extreme exhaustion, was dismissed as being a mental illness (as though somehow this made it any less legitimate!).
And mental illness also finds itself under the umbrella of invisible illness. Thankfully, the road to awareness surrounding these conditions and the impact that they can have on peoples’ lives, is well under way. However there is still much to do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, and to provide treatment and management options. Even after supporting friends through their experiences with mental illness, I still found myself struggling to seek the help I needed to manage my own anxiety and depression. It says a lot that, while I've never thought twice about using an asthma inhaler or taking a painkiller, I experienced hesitation towards medications prescribed for my anxiety.
Human brains are great for noticing patterns in the world around us, but this comes at the cost of bias and stereotypes.
Invisible illnesses show up in a number of ways and their impact can be diverse. For example, living with cerebral palsy, anxiety and depression, means that my workplace needs to be able to accommodate flexibility- as prioritising sleep, exercise, and other wellbeing activities that are integral to my capacity to participate in and enjoy life. It is also important to note that the severity of conditions can fluctuate. This can present further difficulties for individuals with invisible illness, as people may begin to forget, or worse, assume that they don't exist on occasions where they seem "healthy" to them.
The most important thing is to recognise that these illnesses and disabilities are in fact real. Human brains are great for noticing patterns in the world around us, but this comes at the cost of bias and stereotypes. Please rememeber to consider invisible illnesses as well as more obvious conditions. Just because a passenger doesn't look exactly like the stickers next to the priority seats on the train, doesn't necessarily mean that they do not require a seat.
Image: Priority sign on U.S Metro Train http://blog.chronicarly.com/metros-invisible-disability-campaign/