CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness and suicide which could be distressing to some readers.
Our modern society is still very inaccessible and excluding of disability, despite the illusion of progress. There is slightly more representation for physical disabilities, as we see wheelchair tennis becoming more mainstream, and more disabled models being used in fashion campaigns. However, hidden disabilities still lack accurate representation as they continue to be stigmatised.
What is hidden disability?
When I use the term ‘hidden disability’, I’m referring to people that face challenges neurologically, rather than physically. For example, autism, ADHD, chronic pain and much more. As the challenge isn’t visible to the naked eye, a lot of people can be accused of faking or exaggerating symptoms. This treatment doesn’t transpire the same to somebody with a physical disability because you can see their struggle and it’s harder to dispute they aren’t disabled.
I believe that a large amount of blame can be placed on the lack of accurate representation of hidden disabilities. I struggled through nineteen years of life before anyone mentioned that I might be autistic, and that was only after a massive meltdown that almost resulted in me dropping out of university (and honestly dropping out of life). There’s no mainstream representation of what autism might look like in females. I had always been the quiet and agreeable girl that got good grades, so no one ever thought that maybe I was struggling. I wasn’t causing problems at home or school so there was no need for an autism diagnosis to be bought into the picture. I had ‘quirks’, like not liking my food touching on my plate, or always remembering specific dates, but it was always brushed over because “that’s just Isla”.
It was only when I hit breaking point that one friend who had an autistic brother brought up that my symptoms looked awfully like his. This sparked me going down a rabbit hole, intensely researching autism (another autistic trait!). At first, I was hesitant because I had a strong idea of what autism was. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory springs to mind; a man that is nerdy and weird, or a young boy who was incredibly smart and loves dinosaurs- and that wasn’t me. But I soon learned these stereotypes are nothing like what autism truly is.
When I collated a list of symptoms and approached a doctor, I was shoved aside. I also confided in family and friends but was met most commonly with “we’re all a little bit autistic” or “life is hard, we’re all struggling”. I had to learn how to advocate for myself and after another impossible year, I used my savings to privately get diagnosed as the doctors still ignored me and I needed help fast. It was only when I had a written diagnosis that I got acknowledged. It felt great to get the “guess I was wrong” grovelling texts rolling in.
However, even as I settle into life as an adult autistic woman, I still face challenges because my disability is hidden, and I live in a society that constantly invalidates my experiences because I “don’t look disabled”. I understand that when you don’t know me, I do look able bodied, but even when I’m open with adjustments that I need, I’m still met with resistance because I don’t fit the cookie cutter stereotype of autism. This reluctance probably wouldn’t occur if I was visibly disabled. I’ve been told “you’re not that disabled, stop being dramatic”. That is proof that there is inequality in our society.
So, what can be done to help?
There needs to be more accurate representation in the media to help show to a wider audience hidden disabilities are just as valid as any other disability. I think an autistic female in a TV show when I was growing up would’ve made me feel a lot less alone, even if I didn’t know why I related to them.
Whilst this is happening, disability in general needs to be celebrated more. The term ‘disabled’ is still such a taboo as people view it as a bad word, when it’s simply a fact. Disability should be something we’re taught about in school, like how racism and sexism are being talked about more in education. We should encourage curiosity towards the topic so that anyone who sees traits in themselves or are struggling like I was, but never know why, can help themselves. I think this knowledge would bring about more acceptance in the workplace and within communities, leading to less social injustice for both hidden and visible disabilities.
In conclusion, hidden disabilities are just as valid as the ones you can see.