‘If I Can’t See It, I Don’t Have to Pay for It’: Towards a Theory of Disability Blindness

Introduction

Here I would like to present two potentially useful insights into the general problem of so-called “invisible” disabilities, by which I mean any number of potentially disabling conditions all of which have the common characteristic of being more or less difficult to see, understand, and accept as legitimate by anyone lacking the often specialized and/or up-to-date training required to diagnose them directly. Depending on the disability, this can include not just family members, friends, and co-workers, but even medical health professionals, including doctors whose experience and expertise lay in domains that aren’t directly relevant to the disability in question.

Such disabling conditions may include,

“…debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments. These are not always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes or always limit daily activities, range from mild challenges to severe limitations, and vary from person to person.” (The Invisible Disabilities AssociationHow Do You Define Invisible Disability?)

Me and My “Invisible” Autism

For an example from my own life, since childhood I have struggled chronically for rational control over my own attention, striven excessively to organize my entire life around strict rituals and routines, and more or less botched up every interpersonal relationship I’ve ever had at home, school, or work. But it wasn’t until November 2016, just after my 53rd birthday, that I was properly diagnosed with the Autism Spectrum Disorder that best explains this particular triad of symptoms.

Now, one would think that such a diagnosis could only be a good thing, and I sincerely believe that in the long run it will turn out to be. The short run, however, has been a mixed bag. On the upside I finally have proper medical and therapeutic support, and at least the most important members of my family have come to embrace my diagnosis as a fulfilling source of answers to questions like “Whoa, what is up with him?” and “Why the Hell did he do that?

But I regret to say that the reaction of many has been less than sympathetic. Although much of this unsympathetic feedback is unspoken and revealed passively aggressively, at least a few hardy free-thinkers have been bluntly honest and highly articulate in their antipathy towards me. For example, consider these highly critical comments from one reader:

“…You’re not disabled. You’re just obsessed and angry…You’re a complete fraud. It’s my opinion whether you like it or not…someone with your intellect can easily research a psychological condition, go to a doctor, tell them what they want to hear listen to your tall tales of misfortune and assign you a diagnosis….”[1]

Or this one:

“You’re a sad little man playing the victim card while continually breaking rules you don’t like. Seriously, grow up.”[2]

Or this blurb (note the sadism of the final line):

“This blog is a testimony to someone who’s only ailments are selfcenterness, selfishness and greed. With the amount of energy and time you have put into this thing you could have already had another job for months. If you really have autism why don’t you blog about your search for a new job with your supposed ailment. I doubt you will though because that would be constructive and helpful to people with autism. Unfortunately the only thing readers have to look forward to is an awkward 3 month break in posts followed by a new entry about how your butthole hurts because you got your $hit puuuuussshed Innnn while in Prison….”[3]

But perhaps the most spectacular manifestation of this brand of hostility can be seen in the relentless and ongoing attempts by roughly a dozen individuals — mostly MetLife employees — to punish me for (what they must imagine to be my) pretending to have a disability and attempting to exploit public sympathy for my own selfish gain.[4]

Not that any of my former colleagues has accused me out loud of such fraudulent behavior, but at this point I think that is the hypothesis most likely to explain their collective and vindictive behavior toward me. These people can’t all be sociopaths, and if they sincerely believed me to have a legitimate disability I’m sure their behavior would have been very different. No, the most likely reason for their numerous and ongoing attempts to punish me is that they think I’m only faking my disability and that therefore I deserve to be punished.

Two Main Insights

I have thought a great deal about this whole situation and written quite a bit about it on this blog already, but here I wish to summarize my two main insights into the general problem. The first one is that these very angry but surely otherwise good people simply lack the training they would need in order to see, understand, and accept for themselves my Autism Spectrum Disorder as a legitimate disability. Because they lack this training, it really appears to them that I don’t have any disability at all, and so the obvious conclusion for them is that I must be faking it.

Although in such situations it is popular to reference the idea of an “invisible” disability, I believe this approach unfairly lays the burden of proof on the person with the so-called “invisible” disability, while lending an unearned legitimacy to anyone, e.g. a Disability Insurance company, who stands to profit or otherwise benefit from not seeing the given disability.

In order to solve these problems, elsewhere I have suggested the idea of Disability Blindness, which explicitly  acknowledges the objective possibility that, for example, a failure by Jones to see Smith’s disability might very well result from the fact that Jones simply lacks the training he would require to see it. This perspective at once shifts the burden of proof off of Smith and onto Jones, while demanding that Jones earn his legitimacy by acquiring the proper training. For a demonstration of how I have used this strategy to respond to one of my own harshest critics, please see the following 3-part series of blog posts:

  1. 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 1
  2. 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 2
  3. 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

The second main insight is that such Disability Blindness can actually be quite beneficial for some people, even profitable, and that for anyone who stands to profit or benefit in some way from being unable to see certain kinds of disabilities, such a person will tend to stubbornly resist the training he or she needs in order to see, understand and accept them them as legitimate. He or she will resist the training so as not to lose the profit/benefit.

This second insight can actually be expressed as a psychological law:

A Fundamental Law of Disability-Blindness

Given some disability that cannot be easily seen, understood, and accepted as legitimate without adequate training (e.g. psychiatric disabilities, chronic pain, etc.), a given layperson (one lacking such training) will nonetheless be able to see, understand, and accept the disability as legitimate to the extent that the disability doesn’t threaten to burden or inconvenience the layperson in any significant way.

Also, to the extent that the layperson perceives that he or she may be burdened or inconvenienced in some way by the disability in question, said layperson will resist the training and continue to find it difficult to see, understand, and accept the disability as legitimate, and this so as to escape the perceived burden or inconvenience.

Conclusion

All disabilities pose challenges to those who have them, but when a given disability can only be detected by people with specialized training, everyone else may succumb to the illusion that the disability is non-existent and conclude that the person with the disability is faking and attempting to exploit public sympathy for private gain. This illusion of cheating can give rise to hostility that may be expressed either covertly or overtly toward the person with the disability, thus greatly exacerbating the basic challenges associated with the disability.

In such situations, it becomes essential to understand the underlying psychological forces that are driving this hostility in order to find positive and constructive ways to cope with it. The insight, first, that the alleged “invisibility” of the disability may be due entirely to a correctable lack of training on the part of the layperson, and second, that the layperson may stand to lose profit or other benefit by acquiring such training can go a long way toward creating that essential understanding.

Of course, the above is not offered as any sort of exhaustive theory of Disability Blindness, but I’m hoping it’s a useful contribution to such a theory. I invite you to offer any thoughts, ideas, or feedback which may help to elaborate and complete the theory in a comment below.

Thanks for reading!


[1] For background and context see Hate Mail from That Disability Claims Investigator, Part 1.

[2]For background and context see Anonymous Guest-Blogger or Annoying Troll, Part 1: Who Is ‘Sulla Felix’?

[3]This bit of sadistic nonsense was left by an anonymous reader on my post Warning: This Blog Just Might Scare The Shit out of You.

[4]To summarize briefly: first these individuals unlawfully resisted my requests for reasonable accommodation of my disability, taking 7 months to revise a 1 page document granting my request (which was still wrong); then they fired me unlawfully because I filed a first complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for resisting my requests for reasonable accommodation; then they lied to the EEOC about why they fired me, giving the EEOC an excuse to drop the investigation of my second complaint against the company; then they tried to buy my permission to use their psychologically brutal tactics on others (I call the ensemble of these tactics The MetLife Meat Grinder); and now they’re fixing to send me to jail because I staged a one-man, totally non-violent, civilly disobedient protest at their campus in Cary, NC in order (among other things) to raise public awareness of The MetLife Meat Grinder.

For a more complete understanding, see, for example:

  1. The MetLife Meat Grinder: A Significant Public Health Concern
  2. The Morally Mature, Civic-Minded, Grown-Up Thing to Do: Yet, Another Open Letter to the Mysterious Mr. Phicks
  3. Is MetLife’s Code of Conduct Recklessly Incoherent Bullshit? — An Open Letter to MetLife CEO Steven A. Kandarian
  4. An Open Letter to A Certain EEOC Deputy District Director.
  5. I Was Gang-Raped by MetLife Employees: Another Open Letter to the People of Earth.

 

Do You Struggle with Disability Blindness?

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.[1]

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!

 


[1]I have also suggested this idea of Disability Blindness elsewhere. For example:

Also, for more on the idea of disability and especially autism as a disability, please see Autism Is a Disability; Penguins Can Fly.

 

 

How to Skirt the ADA to Fire an Employee with a “Psychiatric” Disability

Man in Grouch Marx disguise

Disclaimer: this goofy picture of a man in a Groucho Marx disguise indicates that this post is just a joke. I am not in any way advising any employer to actually implement this sociopathic solution to the problem of psychiatric disability in the workplace. On the contrary, my goal is to mock and ridicule this all-too-commonly used approach. Image found here.

Dear Employer,

Are you tired of that malingerer in your employ? You know, the one with the so-called “psychiatric disability”? Are you tired of the excuses? The moodiness? The drama? The “sick” days? The FMLA “medical” leaves? The short-term “disability” claims? The infantile and depressing can’t-do attitude?

Well, today is your lucky day! Because I am about to tell you how to fire this slacker. Here’s what you do: fire him!

Boom. Yup, it’s that simple. Just sack him. Do it now. You don’t even have to explain why. Stop wasting money on this lazy slob.

What’s that you say? “What about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? The brat will go running to his EEOC mommy and tell on me.”

Yup, absolutely — whiners gonna whine, am I right? And here’s how to handle that: you mediate, and you offer the guy a few thousand bucks to drop the charge. EZPZ, lemon squeeze me. Look, if you don’t fire him, you’re just going to give him that money anyway, and in exchange for what? Headaches? Frustration? Whining? At least this way you nail a solid bottom to that leaky bucket. Also, once he’s gone you can replace him with a good worker, somebody who will actually earn his living.

What’s that? “What if he’s not faking it?” Are you kidding me? Why would that be your problem? What, you don’t have enough problems already? Now you have to go around taking responsibility for someone else’s?

Look, first of all, he’s probably faking it. At the very least he’s probably milking it — exaggerating — which is a type of faking it, and to the extent that he is faking it, then he is lying, and he deserves to get fired.

Ok, ok, right. Maybe every now and then you’ll inadvertently fire someone with a real disability that really is “invisible” and that really you should not fire. Listen, you’re going to have to get over that. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. You understand? Don’t get me wrong, it’s sweet that you have a conscience and all, but this is business were talking here, right? Not charity. Just donate some money to a real charity so at least you can get the tax deduction. Plus, what about all of your good workers? Think about all you’re doing for them and their families by axing this dead wood. You’re strengthening your company’s financial position, and that will help keep them all employed so they can feed their families.

You see where I’m coming from? It’s the right move, amigo. And besides everybody does it, especially your own competition. If you don’t do it too, you’ll just be making them stronger than you, and eventually you’ll have to shut down your company, or sell it to someone who has the guts to do what you won’t.

So fire the fucker. Fire him now!

[Disclaimer: The above is just a joke. Please do not actually implement this sociopathic strategy!]


“The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws [e.g. The Americans with Disabilities Act] that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.” From “Overview” at https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/index.cfm, last accessed 12/30/2017 7:43 PM