[Image Description: A faceless person with brown hair parted cleanly down the middle. The back of the office chair she’s sitting in is visible, and behind her you can see a white wall and a wooden door flung open with a plastic bag on the doorknob. In the lower left corner, you can see some pink shoes.]
A friend once told me that my disability was “semi-visible.” At the time, I thought I knew what she meant. Now I realize I don’t.
She could have been talking about my hemiparesis; the way I walk and hold my left arm has been commented on by all kinds of people. A couple of therapists once told me not to worry, since “We see it only because we’re therapists.” (Where were all the three-year-olds who asked me how come I walked like that getting their occupational therapy degrees? And who said I was bothered by their noticing, anyway?)
But my friend is also the daughter of a speech-language pathologist. She’s seen all kinds of disabled people because of her mom’s practice. Her teenage-at-the-time sister once told a woman that she thought her son could have Asperger Syndrome–and unlike some op-ed writers, she wasn’t being mean-spirited at all. Because of my friend’s background, she’s probably familiar with some disability issues in ways that other people aren’t.
This is why I have a problem with terms like “visibile” and “invisible” disability. I didn’t used to; before being corrected I just took them for granted as objective descriptions of natural phenomena. They aren’t. How can they be, when whether something is “visible” or “invisible” depends so much on who is looking?
You are 18. Your much younger autistic cousin and his family are coming to visit. You have read some things about autism (mostly from autistic people) and you think of some of the barriers your cousin might face in your house. The guests arrive; you have lots of fun hanging out with all your cousins. At one point, your cousin with autism climbs on top of the toilet tank. You don’t think the toilet tank can hold him; you also remember some things you read in books. In as calm and even a voice as possible, you say ” __, come down from there,” starting with his name so he knows you’re talking to him and then giving him a few moments to process what you said. After a few seconds, he comes down from there. And you are thankful, because you really didn’t want to bring his cut-up, bloodied corpse to his parents.
Later, you’re out with a friend who has an intellectual disability and uses a wheelchair. You’re at a party at the skating rink, and you’re the one driving. Looking back, you can’t remember if your friend actually asked you to drive. She may have–especially since you drive very badly and she laughs whenever you crash into the clothing racks at the mall. But she also may not have, in which case you are being a complete asshole. Considering that you were friends through a program that paired teens up with other teens who have intellectual disabilities, and you were involved in this program as a way to get enough “service hours” to graduate from high school, “being a complete asshole” is most likely.
So, anyway. You’re driving, and you see a single, small step. You think, “Hey! That’s not much of a step–we can go over that!” So you do, and your friend falls flat on her face. She does not fall because she has an “invisible disability.” She falls because you did not appreciate a barrier. You did not appreciate this barrier because you don’t know much about what kind of barriers people who use wheelchairs face. Cal Montgomerey wrote an article called “A Hard Look at Invisible Disability” in which she says:
“Dismissing that which is unfamiliar to us as ‘invisible’ (and suggesting that it cannot be discerned rather than that we have not learned to discern it) is another way of throwing the responsibility for social justice back on the individual who carries the burden of injustice.”
So when people draw lines between “visible” and “invisible” disabilities, I get annoyed. Especially when they use those lines to say stuff like, “It would be easier if I/my kid had a visible disability and used a wheelchair/white cane/guide dog, etc., etc, because then people would fall all over themselves to be accommodating.”
The only barriers I am intimately familiar with are my own. When it comes to anyone else’s barriers–including others who have my diagnosis–I can never know them as well. It is my responsiblity to listen to other people, and to learn.
When people form communities, I think there’s a lot of focus on what they are not: not evil, not “crazy,” not Catholic, not “low-functioning.” (Even my diagnosis of “nonverbal learning disability” just tells you that my disability is not verbal). So we end up thinking a lot about our specific needs and how those needs separate us from other people. And when we take action, we only advocate for the people who are most like us.
There’s a lot of cross-disability ignorance and prejudice out there. People have said that nonverbal learning disability is somehow worse than dyslexia because “dyslexia only involves reading”; that kids with ADD are all “wild” and “bounce off walls”; that people with Asperger Syndrome don’t want friends; that people with Asperger Syndrome do want friends while people with high-functioning autism do not.
Stereotypes and misinformation spread beyond disability of course; and if you don’t recognize all the ways labels, identities and prejudices interact with each other, your advocacy won’t get very far. Disability interacts with class which interacts with race which interacts with gender (including cissexuality and transsexuality) which interacts with sexual orientation which interacts with culture and sub-culture which interacts with nationality which interacts with region (we Nebraskans are different from Rhode Islanders who are different from Floridians, etc.) and probably a bunch of other stuff I forgot.
I’m not saying that we’re all the same. What I am saying is that too often, we part ourselves off and focus our advocacy on one or two identity labels at a time. This narrow focus leaves a lot of people out, and won’t help us move forward in the long run. We can spend way too much time fighting other people’s prejudices, when we should really be working on our own.