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I'm Tired of Having to Explain My Invisible Disability to Strangers

Most people have a idea of what “disabled” looks like, and when this idea is challenged it causes a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. If your disability isn’t immediately obvious, it must be imaginary, of course!

The truth is that disabilities and illnesses come in so many different shapes and forms, and aren’t always visible on the outside. Just because a person may look healthy to you, it doesn’t mean they are.

People with invisible disabilities face discrimination and judgment on a daily basis due to a simple lack of awareness and understanding. As someone living with an invisible disability, I have found myself in some astonishing situations, from the emotionally challenging to the downright ridiculous.

I am sharing my story with you today in the hope of raising much-needed awareness for people living with invisible illness. We will be #INVISIBLENOMORE.

When I was 15 years old, I sustained a traumatic head injury involving three fractures to my skull. This injury caused a number of medical complications and ongoing debilitating symptoms. It has now been 5 years since my accident, and I still have impaired balance, dizziness, profound hearing loss to the left side, visual blackouts, and chronic fainting – historically ranging anywhere between 0 to 50-plus episodes in a single day.

On the outside, I appear like any other healthy young woman of 20. But on the inside I am fighting a daily battle with my symptoms. This is only made worse by those who pass judgment and make assumptions about me.

When people find me unconscious in the street, I have woken up to remarks such as “typical drunk teenager” or “she’s probably on drugs.” I get the same remarks when I am struggling to keep my balance during a dizzy spell.

I have been unlucky to faint into the road on a few occasions. When regaining consciousness I discovered cars beeping their horns at me, or yelling “get out of the road, you druggie!”

People have spat at me, called me abusive names, stepped over me, or simply pretended I do not exist. My disability might be invisible, but I’m not! Fortunately these incidents are rare. Most people are kind, or can at least keep their judgments to themselves.

I cannot drive for medical reasons, so I travel via taxi where possible. It’s best to avoid the nightmare that is public transport with a hidden disability. When I do use public transport, I am likely to experience some kind of judgment or verbal abuse.

Chronic fainting, dizziness and impaired balance make it unsafe for me to travel without a seat. But because my disability isn’t visible, I have difficulty accessing the priority seating area. If I am already seated, but then the bus or train starts getting busier, I will hear things like:

“Why isn’t that girl giving her seat to the elderly gentleman? Young people have no respect these days. I hope she’s ashamed of herself.”

If I get onto a busy bus or train, I may have to ask an able-bodied person for their seat. The usual response when I explain that I have a hidden disability, and need to use the priority seating area, is one of conflict. People say things like: “No, you don’t look disabled!” Or “What’s wrong with you then? Some people have real disabilities, you know.”

This has happened so many times that I am now often too sacred to ask for a seat when I need one. Even if I show my medical alert card, people refuse to believe me.

I have felt so pressured by the dirty looks people give me when I don’t offer my seat to an elderly person that I have given up my chair and then fainted moments later. There are usually plenty of other able-bodied individuals who could have offered their seat, but because I am young everyone looks to me. It’s a horrible feeling.

I shouldn’t have to explain myself. I shouldn’t have to declare my private medical history to complete strangers. Stating that I have a hidden disability and need to use a seat should be enough, but it rarely is.

Clearly there is a long way to go for disability awareness. I hope that by sharing my story, I have opened some eyes. The next time you see someone who doesn’t “look disabled” use a disabled parking bay, an accessible toilet, or a priority seat, stop and think; maybe that person has an invisible disability? #INVISIBLENOMORE

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Thinkstock photo by Toby Burrows.