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The Invisible Disability

CW: This article discusses topics of disability and cancer, which may be distressing to some readers.

I titled this article ‘The Invisible Disability’ instead of outright mentioning cancer because the C word is bandied around a lot these days. Likewise, the C word introduces an overtly hostile discourse that not everyone associates with or feels comfortable engaging with.

Invisibility disability, by definition, is:

“disabilities that are not immediately apparent, are typically chronic illnesses and conditions that significantly impair normal activities of daily living.”

I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told, “you don’t look like you’ve had cancer”, or “you can’t tell you were ill two months ago”. Of course, I strive to be healthy, and I wish more than anything in the world to go back to my health before cancer, but that isn’t going to happen, and nowhere near enough people are aware of that.

The Equality Act considers cancer as a disability. This means that you’re protected under fundamental rights in your workplace, place of education, insurance, housing and many more. Whilst your employer, lecturers, insurers and others are aware of your disability, there is more often than not very little consideration for those who have just finished treatment.

Image Credit: National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

As someone who spent the best part of six months in hospital this year and was not allowed to work or attend university (or rather, I wasn’t allowed to leave my 4x4m hospital room), I have found so much ignorance in returning to my ‘normal’ life.

Whilst a few do still regularly look out for me, there are very few who understand the requirements that cancer has left me with. Of course, lecturers understand if I need to miss a seminar or such for a hospital appointment, but the long-term effects that chemo has left me with are entirely invisible to them.

Cancer presents a wealth of emotional, physical and mental health challenges which require weekly check-ins with a medical team to ensure that everything is under control. What most people don’t see is the amplified hypochondria, returning-to-life anxiety, stress around balancing ‘normal’ life and hospital life, fatigue, vacillating emotions, the unsettling nature of being ‘free’ but not being able to participate in peers' activities, the distress of not being able to perform as well as peers, and many, many more.

Of course, the feelings vary person-to-person, but the one consistent still remains people's ignorance of life after cancer.

There are 14.6 million disabled people in the UK. It’s unclear on the statistics of how many of those are under the cancer disability, but, for reference, that is just under ¼ of the UK’s population. Of course, not all of those listed will be ‘visible’ disabilities, and the participant’s range can vary phenomenally.

Image Credit: Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

In 2018, the Disability Perception Gap found that 1 in 3 people feel a lot of disability prejudice. They also found that 1 in 3 people see disabled people as less productive than non-disabled people (for myself, this is entirely untrue, as many friends and family members would attest). What was most interesting was the fact that the gap in attitudes around prejudice against disabled people had trebled in just 17 years. In 2000 it was found that 37% of disabled people and 34% of non-disabled people felt a lot of prejudice around disability. In 2017, that gap more than trebled to 32% and 22%, respectively.

For myself, I wouldn’t say prejudice concerning attitudes towards cancer; instead, I would put it down to ignorance and misinformation. More often than not, if I wear a wig and have makeup on, very few people will even realise I have cancer. It’s not until they see a physical determinant that they realise what I’ve gone through. Even then, as I’m not connected to my chemo machine or bedridden, most people assume I’m okay.

According to the GOV.UK:

It’s impossible to split these statistics into visible and non-visible disabilities. For example, some people living with breathing difficulties may not have any outward signs of their disability, but others might.

Altering your behaviour around someone who has a disability (visible or non) is a very fine line. It’s improbable that everyone is aware of the long-term side effects of cancer. Still, maybe if people weren’t so ignorant, or took the time to research any possibilities for their loved ones, then life after cancer wouldn’t seem so isolating.

Lead Image Credit: National Cancer Trust on Unsplash


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