Invisible Disabilities and the Transition to Visible Aids
Updated: Feb 8
One of the problems that those of us with invisible disabilities struggle with is belief that we’re disabled. We have to struggle with ourselves over why we can’t do the things that others can seem to do so easily, whether it’s hygiene or cooking, work or social activities. It can ruin our whole day when something changes unexpectedly and we often compare ourselves to others around us who seem so much more capable than us.
Especially when our symptoms may vary from day to day, we can struggle with justifying our capabilities to ourselves: I was able to go to the store, have a video meeting, and write three blogs yesterday on top of doing some relaxing activities with my family, so why can’t I even read for fun today? Some days we may be better and some days much worse, and it can make it difficult to even understand our own bodies.
With the internal struggle that many of us have to deal with, having other people question whether we have a disability can make everything harder, especially when it’s someone we love or respect. When I first struggled with the need for a service dog, my then-boyfriend and his family supported me, but also questioned whether I truly needed it or not. It made my struggle to get the right tools I needed so much harder.
When transitioning to visible aids, whether it’s a service dog or a cane, we have to face many barriers. Many of us don’t want to appear disabled. Those who look disabled are treated differently and, even though we may be disabled by one or more conditions, it can be refreshing to not always be treated as less than capable (at least on our better days).
When aids are only necessary sometimes, we can also be faced with common statements from others such as “you don’t look disabled” and “you weren’t using a ______ the other day, why do you need one today?” This can make our lives so much harder.
I know that I struggled with the transition to having a service dog (three separate times over three dogs), but I also struggled with accepting having to use a cane. I knew that it was needed for safety (I’m the one who had to approach my doctor and ask for a prescription!), but actually having one and needing to use it daily in my early 30s was so hard.
I’ve now had my cane for about 6 months and I still resist using it around the house, even though I occasionally stumble and even fall from time to time. Why do I struggle so much with this? Requiring aid outside of myself can be hard to accept, especially when I never needed it before.
One interesting struggle I didn’t foresee was that it’s a relief to be recognized as disabled sometimes, even though I noticed that I was immediately treated as less able to do anything for myself. Being the independent person that I am, I have struggled to do things for myself for a long time, even carrying heavy bags, but I did it. Having the cane, all of a sudden, people are offering to open doors, get food for me, carry bags, and more. Do I need that help? Mostly, no, and it can be extremely frustrating to realize that something as simple as a cane can make everyone treat me as less-than-able regarding so many things in life.
Sometimes that help can be nice. When I’m struggling to walk with my cane and my service dog and an umbrella and open a door, it can be nice when someone moves to quickly open and hold a door for me. However, when I’ve got all of my things under control, it can be frustrating for someone to do the exact same thing.
So, adding a visible aid for an invisible disability can be hard enough for those of us who need them, if you see someone using an aid who wasn’t using one before, don’t ask them about it or suddenly treat them differently. We’re still the same person, we may just have progressed to a certain point (or been able to admit to ourselves that we’ve been at that point for a while!) that we need some additional aid.