Seeing the unseen: Nonvisible disability

Illustration of various disabilities
Keira Lee/Staff

Related Posts

At the time I’m beginning to write this, I am slightly elevated in a hospital bed of an intensive care unit. Setbacks from a neurological procedure are why I once again find myself with a diet involving intravenous fluids and a wardrobe consisting of a hospital gown and nonslip socks.

As someone who experiences chronic pain, my appearance doesn’t always explicitly notify others I’m feeling unwell. Sometimes, this can look like me smiling through what hurts while telling those who ask, “I’m doing fine.” It can also result in a trip to the emergency room in an effort to try and overcome an incessant bout of pain. In both cases, trying to explain to those without this type of condition can be a task and a headache in itself. 

While I may not always be able to detect an invisible disability in others, I empathize with what it feels like to have medical conditions go unseen by society. Sharing this story allows me to bring some guidance regarding what everyone can do to more inclusively interact with those who experience nonvisible disabilities, enabling them to feel more genuinely seen, heard and supported. 

In many ways, the mere fact that I have the platform to write this piece reaffirms college journalism as pivotal. At The Daily Californian, plans brew to continually bring key writers to the paper that encompass diverse voices and backgrounds. I even have the honor as a liaison between the night department and diversity committee to actively contribute in discussions focused on understanding both staff and readers. 

However, a disconnect occurs when someone puts down the newspaper after reading words similar to the ones I write now. This same severance between knowledge and action is one I witness time and time again.

The few instances when I have spoken about my own health, responses often notify me that someone not only possesses an able-bodied life but also the privilege that allows them to avoid acknowledgment of those who live with a nonvisible disability. I, therefore, find myself trying to manage my chronic pain from both a medical perspective and a socially acceptable one, carrying an unspoken obligation to conform with a world that so often concludes we all process, feel and function the same. 

If this holds true, what can we do as individuals and a society to mend the gap? 

First, avoid assuming that someone operates exactly as you do. This goes beyond mere differences of opinion and upbringing, and the rule extends especially to those who have nonvisible disabilities. Inability to see someone’s internal processing does not permit you to be judge, jury and executioner of their life.

Second, focus on comfort, but limit the need to control. Instead of trying to take over the situation so it makes sense to you, let someone know that you acknowledge their circumstances. While many nonvisible disabilities do not have a simple solution, the mere consideration of them can enable inclusivity for those who may often feel unrecognized and minimized.

Third, respect someone’s boundaries. This should be a given, but I have had many instances where others probe too far into my health matters. Even if curiosity comes from an intention of caring, recognize that no one should be cornered and interrogated. Instead, offer to be a supportive listener, honoring the autonomy of someone with a nonvisible disability as they manage what they share and what they keep private.

Finally, if you cannot be the platform, uplift the platform. Engraved in my mind is the uncertainty and panic from when I was first diagnosed with two brain tumors. There exists no amount of preparation to make such a pill easy to swallow. However, years later, my ambition focuses on using my experiences to understand others with their own circumstances. This understanding for me looks like writing an article on awareness toward chronic and nonvisible disability. For you, this may be taking the time to read said article, pondering over what you know and what you choose to do with that knowledge. Whatever position you are in, explore opportunities and educate yourself on ways to reach out respectfully and effectively.

I am now back at home as I conclude this piece, resuming what I consider a mostly normal routine. Even the bruising on my arms from one too many blood draws in the hospital is slowly fading. However, while this article reaches an ending, the reality of its message most certainly does not. 

My invested wish is that anyone reading this recognizes that not being able to see a chronic or nonvisible disability does not make such an experience any less valid. While no one should be defined by a chronic or nonvisible condition, recognition can be a crucial step in support and inclusivity for those who have felt misunderstood. In fact, writing this piece for the Daily Cal allowed me to understand where I am and where I go from here. If even one person can say the same, I know that visibility is around the corner.

Contact Adriana Temprano at [email protected].