Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Visible vs. Invisible

Warning:  This is going to be a long, probably discombobulated post in which I word vomit a lot of thoughts I have on "visible" vs. "invisible" disabilities.

There's been a lot of talk 'round the disability community lately about "visible" vs. "invisible" disabilities.  From the way some people talk, you'd think you could take a big fat Sharpie marker and draw a thick black line separating those with "visible" disabilities from those with "invisible" disabilities.

The issue of "visible" vs. "invisible" disabilities is kind of like the issue of "high functioning" vs. "low functioning".  What label gets placed on you depends on who is doing the labeling and what situation you're in.

Take me.  Depending on the day, time, situation, and any combination of factors, I a) walk without aids at all, b) walk with forearm crutches or c) use a wheelchair or motorized scooter.  So does that mean I bounce back and forth throughout the day, going from visible to invisible and back to visible?  If I'm walking without aids, but no one sees me, does that still mean I'm "invisibly" disabled?  (And while we're on the topic of existential questions, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?)

What about someone with epilepsy?  Most of the time, they may look perfectly "normal" and thus be "invisibly" disabled.  But when they're having a seizure, especially if it's a grand mal, that's sure as hell visible.  Or someone with mental health impairments and self harm issues?  Persimmon Blackbridge, in the documentary, Shameless:  The Art of Disability, sums this up as she rolls back her sleeves to expose webs of scars from years of self injury:

That's the thing about invisible disabilities - wear a long sleeve shirt, you're fine.

When Persimmon is wearing a long sleeved shirt, she's "invisibly" disabled, but as soon as the scars come out, that's not invisible anymore.  This phenomenon of "invisible" disabilities is such a fluid concept that it's impossible to pin down who, exactly, qualifies as "invisibly" disabled, just as it's impossible to pin down who, exactly, is disabled in the first place.

And even if there are people who can be neatly categorized into "visibly" and "invisibly" disabled, what does that accomplish, besides dividing the disability community even more than it's already divided?  Just because I use mobility aids doesn't mean you know anything about my disability or how it affects me.  And it doesn't mean you have a clue about how to accommodate me, either.  And it shouldn't.  You know what the best way to figure out how to accommodate me is?  Ask me.  You know what the best way to figure out how to accommodate someone who doesn't show any outward signs of disability is?  Ask them.  There's no difference in the way you should treat someone.

And neither group has it "easier", either.  I've experienced it from both sides, both with my physical disability (and it's resulting oddities in my body) and my mental health impairments.  If you're more "out there" and visibly disabled, you get outright pity and ableist comments.  If you're less visibly disabled, and need or choose to disclose your disability, you're accused of "faking it", or get similarly skeptical reactions, and you STILL get pity and ableist comments once people find out.  Society pushes and indoctrinates people to "normalize" themselves and invisibilize their disabilities as much as possible, and then when they've expended time and energy and emotions jamming themselves as much into that "normal" mold as much as they can, they're accused of being fakers and benefit scroungers.  It's not "better" to be one or the other, if such defined categories even exist.  It's a different experience - just like all experiences of disability are unique.  People with the same/similar impairments may relate to each other, and there is often a nice tribe-like feeling when you're with people who have the same impairment as you, but it's still a very individual experience.

In conclusion:  The categories of "visible" and "invisible" disabilities are murky, at best, and only serve to further divide a very diverse and divided community.  So let's all stop meebling about how hard it is to be visibly/invisibly disabled and how the other group has it so much easier, ok?  Because it sucks to be visibly disabled sometimes, and it sucks to be invisibly disabled sometimes.  And it can also be MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME to be visibly disabled, and it can also be mind-blowingly awesome to be invisibly disabled.  They are both equal parts suckishness and awesomeness, just like any disability.


Ettina said...

I don't think either group has it easier, and I agree that many people fall into different groups depending on context, but that doesn't mean there aren't differences between invisible and visible disabilities. As a high functioning autistic friend of a wheelchair-using girl with CP, I saw noticeable differences in our experiences of disability. And to ignore those differences could mean overlooking the issues that are faced by one group and not the other (particularly the issues of invisibly disabled people, since visibly disabled people have become the 'poster children' of disability in general).

I'd summarise it this way: people have trouble seeing both the person *and* the disability. With visible disabilities, they tend to see the disability and forget the person. With invisible disabilities, they tend to see the person and forget the disability. (And of course many people encounter both modes of perception at different times - I tend to be readily spotted as disabled by bus drivers, even though most other people can't tell.)

Andrea S. said...

I, too, have multiple disabilities, of which usually only one is going to be obvious (my deafness) and others less so.

With Ettina, I do think there are certainly *differences* in the experience of being "visibly" vs "invisibly" disabled. And sometimes it can be valuable to explore and consider what those differences are and how those differences can vary a lot from one context to another. I do think there is a good reason to occasionally hold these conversations.

But like Spaz Girl, I agree that both can be positive (though in different ways) and both can suck (though also in different ways). And occasionally they may even be great, or suck a lot, in similar ways as well.

And I also agree that the dividing line between "visible" and "invisible" is not always so hard and fast even though some people make it sound as if it is. In some contexts it may not necessarily matter: If you're having a conversation about how others react to you when they see you as disabled (ie, you're not talking about the disability but simply about what people do when your disability is visible), then does it necessarily matter for the purposes of this particular conversation if the exact same disability is invisible in some other context? But if you're trying to explain which disabilities are "visible" vs "invisible" then, yeah, probably just about any disability can be invisible in at least some contexts but visible in others.