Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: Stigmas encompassing invisible vs. visible disabilities


Published: 7/5/2021 7:05:32 PM

This may come as a shock to some of you, but it is an undeniable fact that I am privileged to have a visible physical disability.

I, quite honestly, didn’t think that would ever be something I would admit either, considering that I have encountered ableism since I was a toddler, but the complicated thing about disability is that it is all-encompassing and doesn’t exclusively apply to individuals who have visible challenges. It is one that belongs just as equally to those with invisible disabilities. And because these individuals live with conditions that aren’t noticeable to the naked eye, they are experiences contrived of more hurtful stigmatizations and blatant ableism at the hands of others who are blissfully unaware of the challenges they face as well as the weight that their words hold.

Within the disability community, it often goes without saying that those with visible disabilities have a very different day-to-day experience when it comes to encountering societal stigmatizations than those with invisible disabilities. But for those that don’t live it, the contrasts are not so apparent.

Because my disability began to take hold of my mobility when I was still a baby, no one had to explain my limitations to me. I grew up knowing I was different. And at first, it didn’t bother me. In fact, I adored the attention that it garnered me.

When I was a child, I began experiencing firsthand the reactions that people would have whenever I entered into a public setting. The staring then quickly averting their eyes whenever I attempted to make eye contact, the pointing and innocent questions of children who were younger than I as their parents yanked them away while mumbling a half-hearted apology to my mom or dad.

At the time, their responses didn’t insult me because I didn’t know what they were. However, that all changed when I became a teenager and was able to acknowledge that they were not positive, which allowed me to become more hypersensitive to peoples’ reactions.

What bothered me was not the staring and the questions, but the fact that these people refused to acknowledge me as a person. Given the chance, I would have been more than happy to explain my disability to anyone who asked instead of them making assumptions. This has been something that I’ve encountered all my life, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more numb to it.

Before starting my journey of writing about my experiences, I had fully accepted it as something that I would always have to deal with. But now I know that does not have to be the case — that it is possible to educate people on hurtful stigmas which they perpetuate, as long as they’re willing to listen.

But sometimes people are only willing to listen and be accepting to a degree. Those with invisible disabilities are often the ones who face the burden of constantly having to explain their disabilities to people and having to deal with their wide array of reactions upon learning something deeply personal about them.

A friend of mine from high school, Tiffany Cavanaugh and I recently had a conversation about the challenges surrounding those with invisible disabilities. Cavanaugh, 23, is an autistic person who has amassed almost 10,000 followers on TikTok by being open and sharing stories about her disability on the platform. But her journey to become the woman she is today has not been devoid of challenges that she’s had to overcome. She has experienced ableism since the time of her diagnosis, when she was just 5.

“Before I was diagnosed, my family kept asking doctors what was ‘wrong’ with me. They said I was fine and that I was too pretty and cute to have something ‘wrong’ with me. They even blamed my family for ‘cold parenting.’ It wasn’t until a doctor, who wasn’t a regular doctor, said I should go get tested. My parents had never heard of autism until I was diagnosed,” Cavanaugh says.

Cavanaugh’s parents explained her diagnosis to her when she was in elementary school, but she admits that she wasn’t able to fully comprehend her diagnosis until she was in middle school and researched autism herself. This led her to officially “come out” to her peers during a school presentation when she was in eighth grade in response to the question of why she was put on this Earth.

Her close friends and family members already knew about her diagnosis, but when she revealed her diagnosis to her classmates, she was incredibly nervous about the responses she would receive. Thankfully, it was overall positive and accepting. But she did receive comments that were unsettling to her.

“Some comments that I did receive, and still do today, are: I don’t ‘look’ or ‘act’ autistic, that they didn’t notice I was autistic, that they are sorry for me, that I’m so ‘high functioning’ that they are proud of me overcoming my autism, that I have grown out of autism, that ‘everyone is a little autistic’, that I am an inspiration for being autistic, etc,” Cavanaugh says. “Comments like that always felt weird and uncomfortable for me.”

Cavanaugh does acknowledge that people’s intrusive reactions are one of the most tiring aspects of having an invisible disability along with having to repeatedly disclose her diagnosis to new people.

“It’s not so much about telling new people that bothers me, it is the responses that I get from people that is tiring. ... Very few times people will say, ‘Oh wow, that’s awesome!’, and then ask respectful questions,” Cavanaugh says.

Many who encounter people with disabilities, whether visible or invisible, have a habit of saying inappropriate things and approaching us like we’re spectacles rather than humans. The fact that we’re presumably different from everyone else is one of the most damaging misconceptions out there–because it is not true in the slightest.

Like everyone else, we are humans who are deserving of respect.

Gazette columnist Joanna Buoniconti is a recent graduate from UMass Amherst and is excited to see what this next chapter holds for her.

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