Today I am window shopping online for collapsible canes and considering the abled gaze. I am thinking about what colour cane would go best with my wardrobe and how much money I can justify spending on floral print; and I am thinking about the ways in which we, as disabled people, often package ourselves in order to slide as neatly as possible through the bars of abled discomfort.
I am considering how, up until now, I have mostly been able—despite my ambivalence—to "fit" in the box of 'invisible disability'. I am considering what that box looks like—does it posit a separate experience of disability? If so, separate from what? 'Visible disability'? ‘Disability’ in its entirety?
I am thinking about how my disabilities are contingent, their in/visibility suspended (for the present) in the eye of the beholder. Do you recognise my panic attacks as symptoms? When you see me limping, am I injured or crippled?
One fairly typical surface assumption regarding the differentiation of 'invisible' and 'visible' aligns with the separation of 'mental' and 'physical' disability. As part of my work in disability activism, I am constantly running up against hesitation to label mental illness as 'disability', or ignorance of the fact that mental illness even qualifies as disability. The phrasing of 'invisible disability', in this context, suggests a wish to challenge this hesitation, to pick apart the assumption that something existing (supposedly) on a purely mental plane—and therefore (supposedly) unseen—fails to "count".
I applaud the motive, but question its conclusions. The category of 'disability' is opened up, even as the lines between 'mental' and 'physical' are redrawn in ways that prove frequently unhelpful for many disabled people. Disabilities that fall most obviously between the categories of 'mental illness' and 'physical disability' by various criteria—developmental disabilities, eating disorders, some forms of chronic pain—trouble the twin distinctions from the start, while the invisible aspects of physical disability and the visible aspects of mental illness fall between the cracks.
If my mental illness/es and neurodivergence/s are unseen, who is (not) doing the seeing? Panic attacks, meltdowns, tics, stims, flashbacks, atypical verbalisations, involuntary movements, scars. I see the signs of people like me everywhere, and I watch others ignore or explain them away until they can't anymore—at which point their response becomes pitying, or disgusted, fascinated, fearful, a combination of the above.
Meanwhile, what is 'visible' of other disabilities—most obviously those that require mobility aids—is never more than surface. People who use mobility aids are reduced to their mobility aids. If I use a cane to walk, you see (some of) my mobility impairment, which for me is one of the least troublesome elements of my fibromyalgia—you don't see my pain or my fatigue, you don't see my brain fog, you don't see my memory impairment. The invisible boxes society draws reveal their delineations in the vitriol aimed at wheelchair users seen standing up in public—as though you may only be able to walk or not walk, stand or not stand, with no 'fluid' or 'in-between' status in existence. I will consent to seeing you one way or the other, but not both.
By whose judgement are 'visible' disabilities 'seen', and 'invisible' disabilities 'unseen'?
Last month I moved countries, which involved the kind of high-level executive and physical function that wipes me out for a long, long time afterwards. I struggled to pull my suitcase up the steps onto the train platform and an Italian lady, standing at the top, told me there was a lift. I told her it needed a radar key, which she didn't seem to understand, and I mentioned in passing that, while I'm disabled, I don't have a key, and she interrupted me with "come?"—"how?", or "what?", looking me up and down. I told her I had an autoimmune disease that affects my muscles. She told me my muscles looked fine when I was dragging that suitcase up the steps.
Today I am thinking about the pain and weakness in my legs and feet when I have to stand still for more than a minute, and about how last night I managed to jog for three straight minutes, and about what someone who sees me jogging one day and using a cane the next will think. About whether they will accept that what I am capable of is not static—whether they will consent to see me both ways, or will simply assume I'm faking somehow.
I am considering the discomfort of non-disabled people when faced with visual reminders of disability, and wondering whether my awareness of that discomfort will outweigh the pain in my feet, or whether the pain in my feet will feel more valid if it is made visible through mobility aids—even if visibility means exchanging disbelief for disgust.
I am considering how wheelchair users are viewed as a universal default for "disabled", and how some 'invisibly disabled' people take that to mean that wheelchair users have it somehow easier, or that their needs are being adequately catered to.
That visibility is unequivocally good.
That any of us are really, genuinely, being 'seen'.
About the Author
EMRYS TRAVIS is a disabled, non-binary writer and activist trying to queer a degree in Modern & Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge as much as possible. They also write with the Italian feminist collective F Come and work with the UK organisation Action for Trans Health.