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When seeing is believing leads to discrimination

Seeing is believing, the old saying goes. So where does that leave people with “invisible disabilities.” Frequently stigmatised and discriminated against is the sad answer.

It seems people have fixed notions of what constitutes a disability, drawing associations with mobility aids. If, because of a physical disability you need a wheelchair or crutch to get across the supermarket car park, then that disabled bay is rightly yours. If, on the other hand, you suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (also called myalgic encephalomyelitis), then your symptoms may be less apparent, your disability hidden.

This can lead to quite horrific discrimination and abuse. Today the Mirror reports the case of Naomi Barringer who found an abusive note stuck to her windscreen after she parked in a disabled bay in Colorado. The writer accused her of being “lazy” and “idiot” because in their view she was not “handicapped.” In fact Naomi had parked there because her daughter, Kaitlyn, suffers from hypophosphatasia, a rare genetic condition which causes bone brittleness and weakness. After the incident 10 year-old Kaitlyn said:

“I was offended, I was hurt actually. I really didn’t know people thought of me like that.

“I am disabled and they may not know that and I can understand that because I do look normal but I don’t think they have to do that.”

Abuse of those with hidden disabilities is not an American phenomenon. Here in the UK Sarah Metcalfe, a 35 year-old mother with fibromyalgia had quite rightly parked in a disabled space at Tesco, as her condition produces debilitating symptoms such as chronic fatigue, dizziness and pain. She returned from shopping to find a note stuck to her car by some kind of Blue Badge vigilante. It stated; “Being fat and ugly is not a disability. Park elsewhere.”

As the Metro newspaper reported earlier this year, she responded with a remarkably dignified and calm response on Facebook in the hope of educating people that not all disabilities are visible.

This is not a UK phenomenon. In this video US citizen Debbie Mizrahi, who suffers from short term memory loss following treatment for brain cancer speaks of the harassment, abuse and vandalisation of her car she has suffered when using a disabled bay.

The discrimination can also be institutional. The British Lung Foundation in Scotland & Northern Ireland has expressed its concern that a clamp down on Blue Badge abuse was resulting in people with lung diseases being refused by permits. Their diagnosis is not entirely dissimilar to that in the Sarah Metcalfe case; those medically unqualified to judge determining what is and isn’t a disability.

The charity’s head James Cant told the BBC: “Very often people with a lung condition look much better on the outside than they actually are on the inside” adding that decisions on who is and isn’t eligible for a Blue Badge “are being taken by people who may not have had enough training to understand the full implications of lung disease on somebody’s mobility.”

Don’t get us wrong, we at Fish are fully behind a clampdown on abuse of the Blue Badge scheme and initiatives like Disabled Motoring UK’s Baywatch campaign, but we cannot agree with self-appointed vigilantes and ill qualified council officials making medical diagnoses.

Arguably the most prevalent invisible disabilities are those linked to mental health. The charity MIND reports that annually one in four of us experience a mental health problem. Despite that extraordinary statistic ignorance of the impact upon people’s lives is widespread.

Many still equate depression with being “a bit down”, “blue” or “fed up” when in fact the condition can generate hugely debilitating symptoms which prevent the sufferer from completing everyday tasks. Those who have suffered depression, who have struggled to rationalise irrational feelings and fears in a rational world, who don’t understand why getting on the bus is now such a challenge, are not helped by people, however well meaning, who tell them simply to “buck up.”

In a world in which people appear to be getting ever more judgemental, ever less sympathetic to those different to themselves, it is hard to see how discrimination against those with hidden disabilities will do anything but increase. The only way to combat unthinking and unsympathetic attitudes is to raise awareness, to make visible the issue of invisible disabilities.

  • Have you suffered abuse or discrimination because of an invisible disability? You can share your experiences and help raise that awareness by commenting below.

The website of the American Invisible Disabilities Association offers extensive information, resources and advice for people who live with or want to know more about hidden disabilities.

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