I have a disability, but it isn’t obvious. In fact, in order to see it, understand it, and especially to accept it as a legitimate disability requires some training, and most people currently lack such training. To the extent that a given person — yourself, for example — might lack such training, it could appear that I have no disability at all.
If, indeed, you are such a person, here I would like to suggest that your own inability to see my disability is equivalent to a genuine disability in and of itself, although one which can be corrected simply by training you well enough to see my disability.
We might call this kind of impairment Disability Blindness.
My own disability is called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD, autism), and in my case at least it is so difficult to recognize as such, that most likely you wouldn’t see it even if you could observe me closely for 53 years, which is how old I was when I first got diagnosed. To exacerbate the problem, autism is fundamentally a communication disability — a fact which appears to contradict my well-developed writing and speaking abilities. A legitimate question for a skeptic to ask here would be, “How on Earth could someone who writes and speaks so well be said to have a communication disability?”
I know. It seems impossible. I, too, was skeptical at first, although not about my symptoms, of course, which are obvious to me and everyone who gets close enough to witness them, but rather about how best to explain those symptoms. And yet, believe it or not, and according to the experts who diagnosed me, those symptoms are best explained with a diagnosis of ASD.
Autism is not the only disability that can have the characteristic of being difficult to see without proper training. Pretty much any psychiatric disability (e.g. Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, etc.) can have this attribute, as do a number of physical impairments such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and migraine headaches. It is common to refer to these difficult-to-observe disabilities as being “invisible”, but in my opinion this is a poor solution to the problem it’s supposed to solve because it suggests that these disabling conditions are somehow invisible even to those who struggle with them, or perhaps even to the medical experts who diagnose them. This, in turn, might suggest that these so-called “invisible” disabilities may not actually exist at all, and moreover that those who struggle with them are somehow only pretending to have the disabling condition, perhaps in order to manipulate the sympathies of others and to unfairly benefit from a public perception of being disabled.
To my view, a more elegant solution to the same problem is this idea of Disability Blindness, which can be seen to afflict a great many people and come in as many varieties as there are disabilities that are difficult to observe without adequate training. For additional examples, consider that many people lack the training required to detect heart murmurs, even with the help of a stethoscope. Many people lack the training required to detect emphysema, even with the help of a chest X-Ray. Multiple-sclerosis, diabetes, high-blood pressure — all of these disabilities and more can seem perfectly invisible to the untrained observer, as can Autism Spectrum Disorder — at least in my own case, although I suspect many other autistics will recognize this basic problem.
Please let me know in a comment below if you are such a person.
When reasoning about disabilities, it’s imperative to remember that having a disability is not equivalent to being disabled by it. Being nearsighted, for example, is really only disabling when the near-sighted person isn’t wearing corrective lenses. Leg paralysis is only disabling if the paralyzed person lacks the wheelchairs, ramps, automatic door openers, etc. required to enable mobility. Environmental factors (a.k.a. “accommodations”) such as the existence of corrective lenses, automatic door openers, etc. can make all the difference between whether or not someone who has some disabling condition is actually disabled by the impairment in question.
In my own case, and although I wouldn’t want to speak for all autistic people here, I can tell you that a major environmental factor that heavily impacts my own ability to function is whether the people I interact with struggle with this impairment I’m calling Disability Blindness, which is to say whether they have the training required to see for themselves that I am actually autistic. To the extent that they do have such training, then I function quite well — much as any near-sighted person would while wearing the right corrective lenses — but to the extent that they don’t, then I am actually quite vulnerable to becoming completely incapacitated — just like what happens to near-sighted people when they take off their glasses. In fact, in much the same way that it’s hazardous for near-sighted people to drive without their glasses, for me it’s actually hazardous to interact with people who are Disability Blind. The general rule here can be stated, thus:
I have a disability, but I am not really disabled by it unless you are prevented from seeing it by some sort of Disability Blindness.
Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you think in the comments below!
I have also suggested this idea of Disability Blindness elsewhere. For example:
- How To Malinger: Lesson From An Expert,
- Am I Really Pretending to Be Disabled, Or Are You Just Pretending Not to See My Disability? An Open Letter to a Disability Claims Investigator, Part 3.
Also, for more on the idea of disability and especially autism as a disability, please see Autism Is a Disability; Penguins Can Fly.