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When People Think I’m Too Young to Have Arthritis

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When you think of someone having arthritis, you typically think of an elderly person having the condition. But what happens if the person is young? Or even really young like 5 years old? Juvenile arthritis “can affect children at any age,” according to the American College of Rheumatology.

So why is it so hard to believe that arthritis can affect young people? In my view, we are so stigmatized as a society to place chronic illness and disability only on individuals who are older. We can’t even fathom that young people can face those same challenges as well.

A young person can actually be in worse shape than an older person, but is their illness treated with the same respect as someone who is elderly? I’d argue this is not the case. Since society almost “expects” people who are older to have a chronic condition, the challenges they face with an illness can be treated with a certain sense of dignity.

Have you ever questioned an elderly person’s pain? Have you ever said, “They don’t look sick, so maybe they’re just making it up for attention.” People often give up their seats on a bus or train for an elderly person who looks like they are in pain. Has anyone ever offered a seat to someone who is young and has an extremely hard time standing?

I’m pretty sure the answer is no. And the reason why it’s no is because it’s unexpected and, at times, hard to even believe someone who is young cannot be physically active. It hits even closer to home when a young person with a severe invisible disability is not only questioned by society about the severity of their illness but also by their friends and family members.

So why is it like this? Let’s take a look at another common example. When someone pulls into a handicapped parking spot, the person who gets out of the car is expected to be visibly sick or old. However, this isn’t always the case. Some young people who look completely well need to use handicapped parking spots because they can’t walk far or have some other limitation due to their condition. But they’re often met with distrust from bystanders who hold the belief that handicapped parking places are for two kinds of people: senior citizens and the visibly disabled.

I’m 33 and have severe inflammatory arthritis that is completely invisible to others and have gotten looks of utter disbelief when I’ve used a handicapped spot. But for an elderly or visibly disabled person, there are no questions. They are “allowed” to park there. If you don’t look sick, you aren’t. This whole notion seems ridiculous to me.

My arthritis viciously attacked my heels and spine, and it’s hard for me to walk long distances without my heels throbbing. I know how much I need that handicapped parking spot in order to get to my destination. I know my life and live with arthritis 365 days a year. But they don’t know my story and judge what they see. Isn’t it time for people to be aware that there are people with invisible disabilities like arthritis who don’t appear visibly disabled? Aren’t we ready as a society to become aware and educated that arthritis occurs in young people and how disabling it can be?

Young people with chronic pain from arthritis and other diseases that often disable them in an invisible fashion can get tired and frustrated of society thinking that they are trying to take advantage of “the system.” We are not. Believe me, we don’t want attention, and we’re not trying to take advantage of anyone.

People need to understand that things like handicapped parking spots are not only for people over 65. It’s about time we recognize and understand that there is no age limit on pain and disability. It affects all ages, all races, all religions — none are immune.  

And yes, it’s time for young people with debilitating invisible diseases to be treated with the same dignity, grace and respect that people who are older seem to naturally receive.

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Image via Thinkstock Images

Originally published: November 6, 2016
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