Often, when thinking about disabilities, it seems that everyone has a similar image in their head. Maybe the image is one of a close friend or a family member, but they all share something in common. The person is generally in a wheelchair or a motorized scooter. Even the logo for someone disabled is a person in a wheelchair, and that’s Duke Disability Alliance’s logo as well.
While its great to talk about improving wheelchair access and accessibility on campus, today I want to focus on a broader spectrum of disabilities. Disabilities are not simply physical. Disabilities can range from mental to sensory to developmental to cognitive to any combination of those and more. Many fall under the category of “invisible disabilities”, or disabilities that impair every day life that aren’t readily apparent to an outside observer. To give you a more concrete idea, here are a few of some of the chronic medical conditions that are invisible disabilities:
- Inflammable bowl disease
- Partial/Full deafness or blindness
- Chronic Pain
Here’s a larger, though still incomplete list. All of these conditions can affect a person’s quality of life, and they’re relatively common. One source estimates that 10% of Americans have a medical condition that could be considered an invisible disability if disabling.
Despite how common these invisible disabilities are, there is still very little support for people with these invisible disabilities. A recent study from the University of Maryland showed that those with more visible disabilities received significantly more accommodation. In the same study, those with disabilities such as a heart condition or muscle weakness were accused of stealing disabled passes or stated that they felt that they had to continually prove they were disabled.
I personally believe one of the best ways to understand what those with invisible disabilities go through is by listening to their stories. Therefore, I’d like to share with you the story of Grace. The full story is published here.
“I recently met Grace, a woman who had a traumatic brain injury when she was sixteen years old. She was in a car accident, an all too common occurrence. An accident occurs, the head hits a part of the car and internal damage to the brain results, ranging from mild to severe. Grace shows no outside cues of brain damage. …
In the course of our conversation, Grace told me of the years of difficulty she has encountered attending school and college. … She has required a lot of assistance to organize and work with information. Grace’s brain was damaged in the car accident. Her ability to hold information was altered by the impact.
The biggest difficulty that Grace has faced is not the effort it takes to organize information, however. It has been in convincing people that she had a problem at all. People look at Grace and assume she is fine and then react to her difficulty as if she is being lazy or choosing to be obstinate. Teachers’ judgments of Grace have been based on assumptions made from Grace’s physical appearance. … It was frustrating enough to have to struggle with the school work. Imagine having to struggle with negative judgments at the same time.”
More stories can be found here.
It’s clear that the way we think of disabilities has to change. The term “disability” does not simply signify physical disabilities and cannot be summarized in the image of a wheelchair. Instead, we need a new way of thinking about disability. I encourage you to talk to your friends and others in the community. Whether visibly disabled, non-visibly disabled, or not disabled at all, listen to their stories with an open mind. Finally, I ask you to consider how we can make Duke more accessible, not just in terms of ramps, but in creating an accepting and understanding campus.