Invisible Wheelchairs: The Disabilities You Can't See

For many, the word ‘disabled’ brings to mind a single image: A white stick figure confined to a wheelchair upon a blue background. As such, the wheelchair has become the universally known symbol of disability: You see it on parking spots and bathroom doors daily, a recognition of the fact that the disabled have specific needs and cannot be expected to function normally without some concessions. With a few exceptions, society largely accepts this fact: public services put enormous effort into providing access for the disabled, it’s considered good manners to offer a seat to someone who has trouble standing, and physical harassment or assault of the disabled is considered the lowest of lows.

A wheelchair is also immediately visible to everybody around. A paraplegic can’t go into public without everybody noticing their condition – the same goes for those with cerebral palsy, blindness, or Parkinson’s. However, despite being by far the most visible subgroup, the bodily impaired are not the only sufferers of chronic disability. While those with obvious physical handicaps must live their lives in the knowledge that everybody perceives them as an ‘other’ before they’ve even met, the mentally or otherwise invisibly disabled suffer in silence.

Developmental disorders are the best examples of this issue: Well-meaning autistic people can drive away friends with a small faux pas that they weren’t even aware of. Due to the centrality of reading and writing in childhood education, dyslexics often learn to believe that they’re just stupid early in childhood, even if they’re exceptionally capable in every other area.  People can display ADHD symptoms for their entire lives, and many adults will resign themselves to the idea that they can never achieve what they feel like they can. I’ve personally had inattentive-type ADHD for as long as I can remember, and the effect that it has had on my self-image is immense. When I wasn’t medicated, simple acts like listening to people when they’re speaking, reading a few pages of a book, or even remembering to eat dinner involved miraculous feats of attention. Even with incredibly important tasks that I knew that I had to do, most of my time would typically be used to gaze out of the closest window. It was only with the understanding of my problem and effective medication that I could finally achieve what I’d thought I was capable of.

The comments of others rarely helped – I’ve heard some say that ‘ADHD is just an expensive diagnosis for stupid kids’ to my face more than I would like. It’s never done in malice – it’s just that they don’t realize that the subjects of their scepticism are often right in front of them. After all, we don’t have wheelchairs or crutches for all the world to see. We aren’t immediately offered the sympathy of others, and we don’t have our own symbol placed on bathroom doors to remind everyone that we exist – to society at large the invisible disabled are merely ‘dumb’, ‘slow’, ‘lazy’, ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’ normal people. Ultimately, my problem can only be seen through my own eyes. The invisible will remain unseen and, without effective treatment for these problems, millions of the disabled will have to make do with an able society.

Photography: Daniel Savage, FluxAblitiy, ‘Disabled’, ‘Abled’, ‘Superabled’, 2013.