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The Invisibility Cloak I Wear as a Disabled Person

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Everyone wants an invisibility cloak — until you get one.

From Wonder Woman’s jet to Harry Potter’s cloak, invisibility is a superpower. Being able to get away from the watchful eyes of the world and hide in your own invisibility is every introvert’s dream.

Invisibility is a fantasy when camouflaging ourselves to get away with shoplifting or spying on an ex, or to shield ourselves from the voyeuristic gazes of suspicious strangers. Invisibility can be a gift when it comes with power, or the ability to hide from those in power.

On days I am visibly disabled, I am hyper-visible. Strangers approach my wheelchair with unsolicited advice (“Have you tried keto?” “Essential oils worked for my cousin.”) and dismissive critiques (“You’re too young to be disabled!” or “You just need to try walking more!”). I cannot get 20 feet outside of my home without someone commenting on my disabled body. To be invisible in these moments feels like a fantasy.

But when you are already invisible, you feel powerless.

On days when I am walking unassisted, my disability is invisible. People are lulled into the false sense of security that no cane means no pain, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am a myth, a fable, a cautionary tale told to children about why they must eat their greens. I am invisible.

Until I am not. Somehow, my body is just as scrutinized. “You don’t look sick” is the soundtrack to my life. Strangers and soon-to-be-strangers ask invasive questions that are none of their business. Trying to understand something that is not theirs to know; trying to turn flesh into diagnoses; trying to make the invisible, visible.

It’s not just me. Almost 10% of the U.S. population has an invisible disability, with studies suggesting this data is lower than reality. It turns out, people with invisible disabilities are largely, well, invisible. Some suggest the number could be as high as 20% of the population. There is even a week dedicated to recognizing invisible disabilities all around us.

But what exactly do we mean when we say, invisible disabilities? Chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and mental illness are among the list of what we classify as invisible disabilities, but invisible to whom? Who gets to decide what is visible and what is invisible when it comes to our bodies?

If I perform my pain, will it seem more real to you? If I show you my scars, will you believe they exist? If I tell you about my trauma, will it make you believe what I say is true about living in my body?

The trouble with labeling certain disabilities “invisible” is that it suggests disability must be corroborated by others to be real. It locates embodiment in the witnessing, in someone’s ability to perceive another’s lived reality. It suggests that bodies must be read, scrutinized, and validated by another to be understood. It proclaims we believe the myth of our own objectivity rather than the lived experience of our neighbor.

We have made disability invisible. The so-called “ugly laws” — on the books in the U.S. until the 1970s — mandated that disabled people deemed “unsightly” must be hidden away. Now, when we venture out into the world, when we dare to exist, disabled people are scrutinized, gazed upon, judged by bystanders and looky-loos who think they have the right to know more about our bodies, demanding to make what they perceive as invisible, visible to them.

But the truth is, my disability is never invisible to me. Whether you can perceive it or not, whether you realize it or not, whether you believe it or not, I am disabled. “I don’t think of you as disabled” isn’t the compliment you think it is. My disability is ever-present in the way I interact with the world.

On days I am walking, I am so meticulously counting my steps, deciding where to spend my spoons, that I am exhausted by the weight of performing invisibility. On days I am rolling, my disability might be more visible to you, but in many ways, it is less visible to me. It takes up less energy and time in my mind and emotions to manage. It is you that I am now managing. I am never disabled enough for disability doubters. To them, I will always be invisible.

Getty image by Happy Photon.

Originally published: November 8, 2021
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