I suffer from Raynaud’s disease, an autoimmune disease in which blood vessels in my hands and feet spasm due to cold temperatures, causing a temporary decrease in blood supply. With Raynaud’s, sensitivity to temperature varies from person to person. Typically, I can experience symptoms at temperatures 65 degrees or lower if I am not bundled up. There is no cure for Raynaud’s disease, but if I wear appropriate clothing and am careful about touching cold objects, I can live a fairly normal life. 

In my early teens, I began to lose my hearing. Being hard of hearing is difficult, but because I don’t need an American Sign Language translator and my hearing aids are not very visible, most people don’t realize that I’m hard of hearing. Once I was diagnosed with these two ailments, I did not have much of an idea as to what to do since I had not learned about these issues in a health class or at home.

Raynaud’s disease and being hard of hearing are examples of a larger spectrum of illnesses called “invisible disabilities.” An invisible disability can be described as primarily neurological but encompasses all disabilities that are not seen by others. They are often incurable. In addition to autoimmune diseases and visual and auditory impairments, an invisible disability can include mental health problems, sleeping disorders or chronic pain.

Among college students, invisible disabilities are more common than one would think. Seventy-five percent mental health disorders begin before the age of 24, making college a trying time for some. Additionally, mental illness is prevalent among college students. Twelve percent of freshman students said they were frequently depressed in 2016. For these reasons, increasing awareness of invisible disabilities, especially among teens and young adults, is exceptionally important. 

Invisible disability narratives are not represented enough in current conversations. Taboo surrounds invisible disabilities, especially in regard to mental illness. This stigma prevents personal narratives from being displayed. Unfortunately, this leads to those with invisible disabilities not getting the care and treatment necessary to maintain good health.

This significantly decreases quality of life for those individuals. A 2017 USA Today article found that students who knew about mental health resources on their campus chose not to use them because of the negative stigma associated with mental health problems. With studies showing that the risk for suicide decreases substantially once one begins counseling, this stigma creates a deadly problem for those struggling with mental health. Those with an invisible disability, like mental health disorders or hearing limitations, deserve the resources and care necessary to improve their health so they can participate in society to their fullest capacity.

A lack of awareness surrounding invisible disabilities makes the disability itself seem fake. Because my disabilities are not apparent, I feel as if I constantly have to justify the struggles I face because of them. There is a common misconception that I am making up the pain from Raynaud’s or that I can actually hear fine but am just bad at paying attention. Neither of these are true.

Other comments I have received regarding my disabilities are usually along the lines of how I should be grateful, because “I could have it worse.” I have always found this type of rhetoric extremely offensive. These comments are a thinly veiled attempt at invalidating the pain that those with invisible disabilities face. While it is true the majority of invisible disabilities are not terminal, these limitations can severely affect one’s daily life.

To combat these misconceptions, I feel the need to educate others on my invisible disabilities. While I am happy to answer questions, it is not my job to combat people’s ignorance. With information at everyone’s fingertips, the burden should not be on those with invisible disabilities to educate the general population.

Increasing awareness through conversation is an important step in decreasing these types of offensive comments. Education is key in creating positive change in the world of invisible disabilities in particular and disabilities in general.

Invisible disabilities and the struggles they entail are real. I want to remind those on campus who struggle with an invisible disability to remember they are not alone and they deserve respect and the resources they need to succeed. As a university, we can support our peers with invisible disabilities by including them in our discussions about disability. I would encourage those without an invisible disability to educate themselves to be a good ally to those suffering.

Emily Huhman can be reached at huhmanem@umich.edu. 

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