Anya Benninger, Student Writer
Special Olympics has come and gone, throwing the subject of disabilities in the spotlight at Messiah once again. According to the CDC’s most recent statistics, up to one in four Americans have a disability. But while we tend to focus on the more obvious examples of disability on campus, there is a large category that is not so visible and often gets overlooked. These are the Invisible Disabilities.
They’re hard to spot because they don’t physically impair someone, like blindness or paralysis, but they do significantly impair their ability to accomplish certain things. Some examples of invisible disabilities are learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD. IQ is not affected but there are roadblocks to learning or understanding different kinds of information. Other disabilities include health impairments like Lyme’s, migraines or diabetes, and mental health issues like chronic depression and anxiety. Because they are usually “invisible” to other people, these kinds of disabilities are often misunderstood. “‘We can’t see it, so there must not be anything wrong with you’ is sometimes a perception that students get,” said Director of Disability Services Amy Slody. “Sometimes they don’t understand the impact that a disability has on the individual.” This often comes up in terms of accommodations, like when a student with ADHD gets extra time on exams or an autistic student gets medical permission for a single room. When the difficulties are not obvious, people may not understand the roadblocks and why a person needs these accommodations. First-year student Ariana receives accommodations for extra time on exams to cope with PTSD, anxiety, depression and processing issues. She said, “getting extra time is what puts me on a level playing field, otherwise I’m behind and disadvantaged. People sometimes think, ‘oh, you’re making a big deal out of nothing,’ or ‘it’s not an actual thing,’ but it is a very real thing for a lot of people. I guess people who haven’t experienced it themselves don’t understand that.”
On top of this, many invisible disabilities (and disabilities in general), have a lot of stigma surrounding them, even on campus. “I feel like the stigma is like if you’re not neurotypical, some people think that means you’re inherently wild or need to be controlled,” said sophomore Julie Hansen, a student with autism. “They treat us like we can’t handle ourselves. It’s either that, or some people believe that people who aren’t abled are ‘stupid,’ or that their lives aren’t as fulfilling as an abled person’s.”
This results in people pitying others with invisible disabilities. “They think of it like you are different and need to be pitied, and I do not need to be pitied,” Hansen said. “I am my own person—I’m not abled, but I have a personality, I have feelings, and pitying me or anyone else with an invisible disability makes us feel inferior.”
Slody pointed out that there’s always a sense of unease when meeting someone different than you. “I think there’s some discomfort in that we don’t know how to react when we see an individual with a disability,” Slody said. “We need to step out of our body and our skin and we need to try to see why someone’s acting the way they’re acting.”
She also believes that the conversation surrounding disability needs to change. “We don’t need to pity people with disabilities. We don’t need to feel bad for them.”
She emphasized focusing on their unique perspectives and what these differences have to offer. “When we look at the big idea of diversity, we look at individuals who have to live differently than us because they think or feel differently from us, have different ideas and in fact can therefore lend a lot more to conversation and problem-solving.”