Out of Order: Disability and visibility

Disability is largely invisible. It’s not in our media. It’s not in our conversation. And, often, the disability itself is invisible.

With so little media representation, you would think that disabled people are a small minority. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Numbers vary, with the Census Bureau saying around 19 percent of the population reported having a disability in 2010 and the American Community Survey estimating 12.6 percent in 2016, but the fact remains that there is a significant disconnect between the representation of disability and the amount of disabled people.

Despite approximately one in six people being disabled, there is little conversation on disability. Some disabilities are dis- cussed more frequently than others, but the conversation is still lacking. In recent years, talk on mental health has increased, destigmatizing people with mental illness. However, this represents a limited range of the diverse amount of disabilities that are out there.

Overall, why is it that there is so little representation or talk on a common experience? I think there are two big reasons.

First, I believe people are scared to be the one to begin asking questions. Existing with a disability is so socially mystifying right now that people are awkward around disabled people simply because they are different. People don’t know how or when to begin asking or helping without offending.

Second, disability itself is often invisible; there are so many disabilities that cannot be seen. For example, health issues that could be disabling to some could include vision and/or hearing impairment, major allergies, mental illness, learning or cognitive disabilities, chronic pain, weakness or a health condition that affects energy levels.

Many people who have the above health conditions don’t consider themselves disabled. There is such a culture around health issues that because you don’t seem to have an obvious, severe form of a disability that you can’t be disabled. This comparison can be toxic and perpetuates the notion that disability is a rare experience when in reality, even a common condition like asthma can majorly impact your day-to-day life.

With a health complication that doesn’t seem “obvious” or that doesn’t manifest visibly, the disabled person themselves can feel invisible. While my condition is considered visible now that I use a wheelchair, I still feel this disconnect from others. My daily issues and concerns do not seem visible.

Many events exclude me due to accessibility reasons. Often friends or organizations will organize activities I can’t include myself in, and it can leave me and other disabled people feeling forgotten. Something as small as having an event on a grassy area or on the second-floor of a building can exclude people.

Other times, I feel all too visible. My wheelchair takes up more space than most people. It can be bulky and difficult to navigate around other people or objects. It is a very obvious part of me that people often can’t help but stare at.

Occasionally I can walk short distances without my chair. When I do, it’s awkward and clunky. Even though I don’t have a visible sign of disability such as a mobility aid or a missing limb when I’m walking on my own, it is still visible that I do things differently than others.

People should not have to be told that you are taking too much space for existing or made to feel non-existent by not being included. Not all disabilities are visible, but they need to have just as much visibility in our culture. Increasing visibility in our conversations and culture is important to decrease the negative visibility and invisibility in our day-to-day lives.

Post Author: Madison Connell