An Invisible Disability is not an Invisible Person

I don’t think I’ve been discriminated against for my “invisible” disability because I hide it. But surely my hiding is based on a fear that others won’t accept me. Essentially I can cross the border between invisible and visible just by use of a prop—one of many canes. Even that remark should alert you—or me perhaps—to the fact that I haven’t been able to walk unaided on certain days and on certain terrain for over twenty years. But I pretend this isn’t the case. And that is how I’ve collected the canes—many of them have been bought in an emergency when I couldn’t navigate snow or keep standing. Now at least that level of denial is past. I have a cane in my office, one in my car, one in the bedroom, one in the living room, and one ready for any suitcase or purse.
In the past six months, as I’ve been using the cane more at work and around town, I’ve had to deal with peoples’ reactions. Some are simple, and useful. For example, if I enter a big box store with the cane the world becomes more accommodating, i.e. I can ask for a chair if I have to wait. But recently I made the mistake of taking my cane into a party, because the house was on a rough dirt road. Instantly I had attention I didn’t want. Was I ok? What had happened? This was of course from friendly acquaintances, but it paralyzed me socially. I couldn’t communicate.
What should I have said?
I have a weird paranoid fantasy that someone will yell at me for using the disabled stall in a public bathroom. The presence of the cane helps with this, but of course I don’t always have the cane. I had a therapist once ask me: has this ever happened? Implying how unlikely that was. True, but it is my fear. A fear that no one will accept that there is something “wrong” with me because I’m hiding it? Sounds absurd. But I’m afraid of both being hidden and being visible.
Recently at a family party I put my cane down for a bit and my nieces and nephews—a theatrical group—started tap dancing with it. On my way out, I had to nag for it back—give me my cane! My cane was having fun without me. It was getting a bit of Broadway. I was jealous of the cane, and sad I wasn’t tap dancing, and irritated that no one cared I needed it.
And then quite suddenly I was happy about the whole thing.

14 thoughts on “An Invisible Disability is not an Invisible Person

  1. Being one of the invisible disabled (not because I hide it, but because my disabilities take trained and/or observant eyes to see) I have used the disabled stall many times and have never been yelled at. That said, I’m glad your cane can have fun being a prop to others too, and that you see the humor in it! Walk on, Miriam!

  2. Although I am certain my physical limitations are not as severe as yours, I can very much relate to your post today. I also have an invisible disability and am ashamed of it, feel weird about having a handicap placard, pretend that my disability doesn’t affect me until it completely knocks me out, exhausted from the pretending. I am afraid, too, of using the disabled stall and being accosted by an angry person because I don’t wear my placard into the restroom. I appreciate all that you shared, especially the happy dancing cane…

  3. Thanks, Miriam, for this honest ‘coming out’ piece. It’s always difficult to have to change our self-image in an instant, in front of others, especially in front of a crowd of familiars. But at least you no longer have to stumble over a secret that sits in the middle of your path forward.

  4. I have an invisible disability too – not so severe but on a bad day walking even a short distance can be very painful. I still feel the urge to limp when exiting my car parked in a handicapped zone to satisfy strangers who might think I don’t deserve to park there. However, for years before I used the handicapped bathroom stalls — they are BIG enough to turn around in and have never been challenged. I display my “gimp” sticker proudly and make an effort not to try to read the minds of those who inadvertently catch my eye. I love and admire how open you have become this year about your physical challenges – it makes me happy.

  5. Dear Marianne,

    Thank you for this heartfelt piece. I have had chronic illness which get’s worse from year to year. It takes awhile to come to grips with something like that. Sometimes, it owns me and lands me in bed. I feel bad that if affects my who family when I have a setback. It certainly is a roller coaster ride. One I know I’ll never get off. My faith, family, friends, and writing get me through it. One day at a time–making the most of it. Best wishes to you in your journey. My thoughts and prayers go with you.

    Blessings,
    Karen

      • Dear Miriam,

        Sorry for the typo in the above. God made us who we are, just the way he wanted us, for a purpose. The challenges aren’t always easier but help us grow and be more sympathetic to others. Walk boldly with that cane. Come up with some humorous comebacks with insensitive people. You would be surprised how the gift of humor not only lightens your load but eases others too. It’s not easy to keep talking about health issues. Finding a new topic can often divert the attention to something else. Best wishes with your challenges, knowing God walks with you.

        Blessings,
        Karen

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