By Adria Nassim
Other than walking around town in a cable knit sweater and slacks with a mild limp and a service dog, at first glance I look pretty much like the average adult. A lot of people who don’t know me well or who don’t spend an extended time with me don’t realize I have a disability until I tell them.
They also often don’t understand how broad my disabilities are. I was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy at birth, a learning disability at age five, and an autism spectrum disorder in my mid to late teens.
While few people intend to offend, it’s difficult to sometimes hear, “Oh, I would never have guessed unless you told me.” Though it’s not obvious, an invisible disability can still impact a person’s daily life in very serious ways.
Often, without experience around people with disabilities who require less support, a person may not understand why I would need help since I am so verbal and have an above-average intelligence. How could they know that I did not begin to learn to tie shoes until about age 12? How could they know I did not cross the street independently until I was 25, with the help of a service dog? How could they know I didn’t begin to make eye contact in conversation until I was about 23 years old? Most people don’t know these things; they just know I’m smart and can talk.
I frequently explain how my brain works and what I can and cannot do. While my intelligence is a very good thing for me, it leads people to misunderstand and often overestimate my capabilities. Once, I was in an amusement park and while most other clients were expected to pair off with other chaperones, one of the adults who hardly knew me, said, “Go ahead, Adria. You can go; have fun and meet us back here at 4:00 p.m.”
I immediately froze and replied, “You don’t want to do that. Not here,” and instead joined a group. This well-intentioned individual couldn’t see my disabilities and overestimated my abilities, creating the potential for great harm.
There is often more familiarity with the physical supports a disability requires (e.g., assistance with dressing, traveling, bathing, and feeding). However, some with disabilities require assistance in areas like executive functioning, independent living, and social interaction. Some invisible disabilities can impact an individual’s understanding of safety and judgment, and overestimating these abilities can have serious consequences.
On the other hand, lack of knowledge about these very same disabilities can cause a care provider to underestimate my capabilities and want to do things for me. In these instances, I must explain, “No, it’s okay; I can do it.” My parents really encouraged independence, and I have worked hard to become as independent as I am. If I have other people do things for me when I can do them myself, over time, that may decrease my ability to act on my own.
As a young adult transitions into larger, adult public spaces, living with an invisible disability requires a decision about disclosing this disability. I understand why some may not want to reveal, and I realize disclosure is a personal choice. At the same time, it’s also true that the decision to disclose or not affects more than just the person with a disability. (Look for more of my thoughts and experiences with disclosure in a future post.)
I think greater education and awareness about disabilities and some of their related challenges might help the public see the invisible. Many people don’t realize how much work I have put in to do the things my friends do every day. On the outside, I look just like a lot of them, and in a lot of ways, I am. I live in their world. I do typical things. I shop at Target, I saw Will Smith slap Chris Rock across the face at the Oscars, and I have played trivia at bars.
But I learned how to assimilate in settings like these because I have been taught, through years of consistent social skills therapy, how to effectively interact with peers.
So the next time you see a person acting a little differently or sitting alone while their peers are at a table nearby chatting, just remember there may be more to their story than what you first see.
One in four Americans lives with a diagnosed disability, and life with a disability is different for every one of them. You may not be able to see the challenges someone is living with, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.