Not all disabilities are visual

“I DON’T LOOK DISABLED? You don’t look IGNORANT, but there you go….”

I saw this quote on my Facebook timeline today and what came to mind was Bullseye, or as my fellow Nigerians would say – “Gbam, which simply means case closed. I couldn’t agree more with @abilityaccess who posted it on a group that we both belong to on Facebook.

What exactly does being disabled look like? A wheelchair? A walking stick? Maybe a hearing aid or perhaps a guide dog? There are millions of people who live with hidden disabilities and just because we are unable to see their disabilities doesn’t make them less disabled. I am one of such people. As I have mentioned in my previous blogs,  I suffer from sickle cell anaemia. On a good day,  except you know the tell-tale signs of sickle cell disease,  it is almost impossible to tell that I suffer from a disability.

I have always found the statement “you don’t look disabled” upsetting. No matter how sweet you try to say it and how much of a compliment you mean it to be, nothing could be far more patronising.

According to the Equality Act of 2010, a person has a disability if the person has a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. There are a lot of people out there who suffer from physical, mental, sensory or neurological conditions, which don’t have any physical signs.

I walk with a limp, which is more obvious on some days than others, depending on how my body is feeling on the day. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I am disabled because of Sickle cell and have often wondered what exactly being disabled looks like when I hear people say to me “You don’t look disabled”.

A lot of people with hidden disabilities already find it difficult to openly come out to discuss their disability, so when comments like this are made, it is almost like you are challenging their reality. If I use myself as an example, my reality is this –  I can wake up in the morning pain-free and by midday, every joint in my body is screaming for help. My reality is that I get exhausted and dehydrated very quickly, especially in extreme weather conditions. My reality is that I cannot afford to run for the bus or train, as I am too tired and weak to do so.

I have to get to the bus stop or train station way before schedule otherwise I will have to wait for the next one, which might mean I will be late to my destination and there is nothing I can do about it.  Of course, this also means that if I was heading off to work, a job interview or to an important meeting,  I run the risk of not being taken seriously. Turning up at a meeting breathless and looking exhausted is sure not a good way to create a first impression. Hence, I have to plan to get to places at least 30 minutes before and then find a coffee shop in the area where I can catch my breath and adjust myself.

Don’t be fooled. Just because you see someone who seemingly has it all together doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t have a hidden disability that they are dealing with. That journey, holiday, job or day out that you have managed to plan at such a short notice and with minimal stress could have taken them twice as long, making sure their i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed to ensure they have an equally enjoyable time with the least effect on their disability.

I, therefore, plead with everyone, there is no point kicking someone when they are already down.

Let us be sensitive.

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