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Invisible illnesses are still disabling

I gave up my seat for the elderly woman who hobbled onto the bus. After her arrival, I was probably still the second-most physically disabled person on the bus, but from looking at me, no one would ever think to offer me their seat. My illness is invisible.

University students are often told that we’re at “the prime of our lives.” Therefore, we must all be healthy, right? However, many diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic migraines, asthma, diabetes, and even heart problems can and do strike people within this age group, making it difficult for them to live life the same way their peers do.

Prejudice only makes this harder. Certain university policies may offer help, but students are often criticized by their peers and even by faculty and administration for using them.

A student with chronic migraines may be given a single occupancy dorm room in order to accommodate his condition, only to hear murmurs regarding he received special preference, as he appears ‘fine.’ A student who requires an extension on a paper because her finger joints hurt too much to type may be accused of ‘making it up’ by her professor because she was capable of walking in and attending class. A student who is using the elevator to go up one floor may be looked down upon as ‘lazy’ by peers who saw her at the gym last week, before her lupus flared up.

One in 100 Canadians have rheumatoid arthritis, 15,000 Canadians have lupus, 8 per cent of Canadians suffer from migraines, 8.4 per cent of Canadians have asthma, and 240,000 Canadians have Type 1 diabetes alone. Many of us do not use wheelchairs and do not have obvious physical symptoms or a large badge on our shirts proclaiming our disability. People with invisible disabilities could include your neighbour, your classmate, or even your best friend.

You may be thinking, “how could I not know if my best friend had one of these conditions?” Simple: you never asked. People with invisible illnesses don’t tend to broadcast their conditions, often due to the stigma they face when asking for help. However, no one that I know with an invisible illness has told me that they would be offended or upset if someone asked how they were doing, if they were alright or if they needed help with something. In order to live normally, people with invisible illnesses sometimes do need a hand.

Next time, instead of judging, ask. If you notice your friend was absent from lecture, rather than assuming they are lazy or hungover, ask whether they are feeling alright. If they were in bed with a migraine all day, perhaps you could lend them your notes. If you notice a peer wince when picking up a pen, ask if their hand is okay: perhaps they could use your help in carrying their books when their arthritis flares up. If you are able-bodied and healthy, and you see an elderly person get on a bus, give up your seat. That way, someone who needs the seat but doesn’t appear to won’t feel pressured into giving up theirs.

Finally, know that the illness does not make the person. The condition is something they live with, but it is not something that people want to revolve their lives around. Recognize that people with disabilities have interests and talents; once you know about someone’s illness, these should not be put on the back burner in your relationship with them. At my own school’s society for people with hidden chronic illness and their allies, InvisAbilities, we like to say: “my illness is invisible: I am not.”

Kylie Thomas is a student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.. 


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