Invisible Illnesses

With the introduction of ‘accessible toilet’ signs appearing in the UK, rather than them being referred to as ‘disabled toilets’, I’ve been seeing a few of these pictures floating around:


Photo: Crohn’s Disease UK

Which got me thinking. I’m relatively new to disabled facilities, so maybe time will provide me with more encounters. I don’t look disabled, as I have a hidden illness. I don’t have a wheelchair or walking aid. I don’t have any visible scars or injuries. I don’t have a different gait. I communicate with people. But I’m limited with how far I can walk so have a blue badge and I sometimes choose to use the disabled toilet.

My experiences have shown me that the majority don’t really seem to care if you park in a disabled space or use accessible bathroom facilities. I have had some issues with sitting in seats for the handicapped/pregnant ladies/the elderly on public transport or if I’ve needed to sit down while queuing and someone thinks I’ve ‘cut in’. But on the whole, very few reasons for me to turn around and say ‘some disabilities are hidden, please don’t be so quick to judge’. Like I said, maybe time will reveal more.

So where has this ‘don’t be quick to judge’ phrase come from? There must be a reason why people are feeling the need to justify the change in term with posters etc.  NB I welcome the new term and signs, this is about the ‘don’t be quick to judge’ materials appearing. 

People seem to be too quick to judge in general. You hear stories of parents with autistic children being told by strangers to manage their kid’s behaviour better. Who has the right to give out any parenting advice? It shouldn’t matter if they’ve got a disability or not, it’s not ok to walk up to a stranger and criticise.

I’ve found other disabled people to be the ones giving me ‘dirty looks’ when I’ve parked in disabled spaces. Which is stupid, because being disabled themselves, they know the process of applying for a blue badge- it’s long and you have to justify a lot. It’s so much easier if you have a visible disability or have had surgery, rather than having to prove your hidden illness, so the fact I have the badge should be enough to say I’ve ‘passed’ the test. So why the looks? 

The most comments seem to come from the elderly or pregnant women. I’m talking about public transport here. I tend to avoid it at all costs. I can’t stand up for long, and walking around on a moving vehicle is a nightmare for me. But pregnant women and the elderly seem to have a strange sense of entitlement about these seats. Pregnancy might be awkward but it’s not an illness. Both being pregnant and elderly are visible things, so other people will almost always offer to move for you, whereas I have to ask people if they’d mind moving (and I phrase it carefully- I clearly don’t know everyone’s medical history). Yet the elderly and pregnant ladies seem to get very annoyed, very quickly, quite often even if I say I have an invisible illness, which I don’t feel like announcing to the whole bus/train in the masses of detail they seem to expect. This obviously doesn’t apply to every old or pregnant person, but you then find a lot of other people tend to join in. 

So why do other people join in? If I have had comments about disabled parking or toilet facilities, it tends to be from the disabled people’s companions or carers, rather than the disabled person themselves. Sometimes it’s from random onlookers who think that they’re doing a good deed by challenging me. Why though? Possibly because disabled people spent a lot of the time (wrongly) being shoved to one side, classed as second rate citizens and being considered as ‘lesser human beings’ in previous years. Now that’s not the case anymore, but it almost seems to have gone the other way. Positive discrimination is a thing. It’s where you give something to a person, like a disabled person, because they’re disabled. So people feel the need to show how non-discriminatory they are by being discriminatory in a different way but under the guise of ‘accepting’ people into society; passers by take it upon themselves to stick up for disabled rights by challenging people as to why they’re using a disabled bathroom or sitting in a handicapped seat. But why? If I’m not the best person for a job, I wouldn’t want it just because I’m disabled. If I was waiting for the disabled toilet, I wouldn’t want someone to come and have a go at the person leaving for using the facilities inappropriately, because just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean I lose the ability to speak- I want to choose when to defend myself, unless I really can’t for some reason. The person might think they’re being ‘helpful’ to disabled people, but it’s still discrimination even if their intentions are supposedly positive. When I used shop mobility, I found a lot of shop keepers who wouldn’t usually interact with me much were suddenly trying to make an extra effort to be polite. Why? Why not be that polite to everyone? Why do we treat people differently, positively or negatively, once we know they have a disability?

Discrimination obviously and sadly still exists and it’s important to combat that. But I think sometimes people can be ‘looking for things’ which might not be there or might not be as big a problem as they perceive, making it a partially shared responsibility. Some disabled people have a ‘I dare you to challenge me’ air. I find this tends to lead to challenges, rather than preventing them, and it’s a vicious circle of ‘I was challenged because I don’t look disabled so I need to be defiant again the next time’.

Others feel the need to justify themselves or get upset if someone says ‘can I help you?‘ if they’re heading in the general direction of the toilets. The person asking the question might say that to every person who looks a bit lost, not just ones with disabilities, visible or otherwise- it’s not necessarily a ‘do you really need those facilities’ comment, it might actually be a person being genuinely nice. A simple ‘I’m ok thanks’ or ‘can you tell me where…’ works fine as a response. And, if you’re getting offended about someone judging you because of your hidden disability, you’re being slightly hypocritical yourself- you’ve made a rash assumption, just like you’re assuming they have.

My biggest issue is when people moan about having a hidden disability and getting comments about using facilities, yet they criticise seemingly able-bodied people for using facilities– how do you know that person you’re judging doesn’t have a hidden disability too? If someone asks me why I’m doing something a particular way, I find it easier and less confrontational to say ‘I have a condition which means I have to…’ rather than getting prickly about being interrogated. If the goal of the signs is to educate people in hidden or invisible illnesses, why wouldn’t we try to give good examples of exactly those things, which people can relate to and then change their views and educate other people? You don’t have to give your life story, a sentence is usually enough. And, if that’s not enough of an explanation, just ignore them in the same way people get road rage when driving- they’re an idiot and nothing you do or say will make them change their mind about you.

There is also a small minority of disabled people who think that they deserve to have everyone running around after them and make a point of telling people how disabled they are or make demands which are sometimes OTT or unreasonable. Which is possibly why positive discrimination occurs because these people are more vocal. Lots of disabled people have a ‘can do’ approach instead. Yes, disabled people don’t have a choice as to what they can and can’t do in the same way other people do, but they can choose the way they approach the additional challenges they face. 

Although clearly wrong, there’s always going to be people who are discriminatory, just like there’s always people who are going to abuse the system, both disabled and otherwise.  And I don’t know how you’d stop people misusing facilities not designed for them- if they’re misusing the facility in the first place, they most likely won’t change their ways just because a random onlooker challenged them. But really, the problem lies with our quick to make judgements and assumptions about people in general, and on both sides. This is where ‘education’ comes in, so naturally you’d think schools to be the best option. Surprisingly, children can be more accepting and tolerant towards others than adults. Will a poster correct an adult’s point of view? Probably not. So, just like physical disabilities were put under the spotlight for a while, if we want to see a change in attitude towards people with invisible illnesses and disabilities, we need to be more open in explaining what an invisible illness actually is in a clear and respectful way. People won’t change their opinions without valid facts (why would they), but they’ll definitely resist change in attitude if they feel like they can’t ask questions.


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