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5 Myths People With Invisible Disabilities Desperately Want Busted

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As a young woman battling serious illness with multiple hidden medical devices, I have found there is a high rate of unnecessary and hurtful comments by those who assume I am not sick. This encounter seems to be a reoccurring experience for many patients battling hidden or invisible disabilities. After surveying a small population of chronically ill individuals on Instagram, it seems there are five specific stigmas patients desperately wanted dispelled.

1. Wheelchairs are only for people with paralysis. There is a large stigma surrounding wheelchairs and their uses. Many people believe these mobility aids are for patients who are unable to not use them. This is in fact only one use of a wheelchair, and a very narrowed view of its capacity to bring mobility to individuals. Wheelchairs are mobility aids, meaning anyone needing assistance with mobility can benefit from it. Whether it be severe fatigue, muscle weakness, joint pain or a connective tissue disorder that makes the body unstable, many individuals require the use of mobility aids. These patients might not look ill and may even be able to walk; however, that doesn’t mean they can walk for long distances, walk without causing extreme pain, or walk without damaging their bodies. These patients may use wheelchairs while out shopping, on a vacation with family, or while attending a long event. On good days you may see these individuals without the aided mobility of their chair but, that doesn’t mean tomorrow they wont need it.

2. Disabled parking spots are only for those with mobility aids. This is a myth that causes so many people already battling emotional trauma due to serious illness unnecessary distress from cruel comments. Many patients prescribed accessible parking spots have an invisible disability, meaning you cannot see their ailment. The use of a mobility aid such as a wheelchair, walker or crutches is only one of the criteria that qualifies an individual for these parking stalls. The Department of Motor Vehicles expresses the qualifications for a placard vary by state but, some of the medical conditions that could allow you to receive a placard include:

The loss of use of your legs or hands.

The inability to walk a certain distance without resting.

Heart, lung or circulatory disease.

Strokes or epilepsy.

Mental health problems.

This list, while unspecific, gives great examples of conditions you would be unable to see, but would cause the individual an inability to park at the back of a crowded lot. Cancer, cystic fibrosis, congestive heart failure, pulmonary fibrosis, COPD, and neuromuscular disease are just a few of the conditions that could be incorporated in this list that may not require the aid of a visible device, but absolutely would require the patient to have a closer parking spot. Never judge an individual by what you can see — they may be hiding more than you know.

3. Service animals are only for those who are blind, and they must wear a vest. As there is a high prevalence of serious illness in this country, many individuals have turned to the use of service animals. A service animal is defined under the Americans With Disabilities Act as, “a dog that has been individually trained to do work, or preform tasks for an individual with a disability.” Today, many patients battling illness benefit from the use of a service dog that can alert them of an impending medical situation. Dogs can be trained to specialize in many different areas such as diabetic alerts, severe allergy alerts, visual assistance, hearing impaired assistance, mobility assistance, psychiatric assistance, seizure alerts or medication/injection alerts. Pups undergo years of training to properly alert their owners of these conditions, which in turn creates a better quality of life for the patient. While many people who possess service animal may look healthy, they are battling disabilities that require assistance they cannot provide themselves.

Please keep in mind that you may not be able to tell this animal is on duty if the individual doesn’t have a visible disability, especially since there is no ADA requirement that states a service animal must wear any form of distinguishing identification. Always use caution before petting an animal as they may be executing a life-saving task.

photo of woman looking healthy next to photo of her wearing medical devices
Chanel demonstrates how her illness is invisible.

4. Accessible restroom stalls are only for those with mobility aids. This is another myth where patients with invisible disabilities take the brunt of hurtful comments directed out of ignorance. Accessible restroom stalls, while made large to accommodate those with mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers, are not only for that purpose. These large stalls can also accommodate people who need extra room to perform tasks such as draining an ostomy bag or drainage bag, or even releasing stomach acid by a tube-fed patient. These stalls are also used by those who need the aid of a bar rail to access the toilet. Though the person may look like a healthy individual, they may have a medical device hidden under their clothes or have a disease that caused deteriorating joints. Please be respectful and avoid judgment when someone exits an accessible stall.

5. If you aren’t “obviously ill,” you do not have a serious disease. If you have read all the way to number five, you have more than likely seen a theme throughout this post: Invisible disability is misunderstood. Many ailments, conditions, illnesses and diseases are often well-hidden. While that lovely young woman pulling into the accessible parking spot may look like a flourishing, well-put-together individual, she could be battling for her life with medical devices hidden right under her clothes — a feeding tube, central line, ostomy bag, and catheter could be just out of sight.

That young gentleman with an adorable furry Labrador may look like he is simply taking a walk with man’s best friend, but wait another moment and the dog is now visibly disturbed, attempting to alert his owner of an oncoming seizure. The middle-aged man walking into the accessible restroom stall may have serious muscle weakness from a degenerative illness, causing him to need the hand rails to pull himself up off the toilet, and the beautiful college student using a wheelchair may have lung disease and cannot breathe well enough to make it across campus on foot.

Never be quick to judge those around you, as they may be fighting a war within their bodies you simply cannot see.

Follow this journey on The Tube Fed Wife.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 26, 2016
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