Students with invisible disabilities are slighted

by Katherine Burns / Beacon Staff • December 2, 2015

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These are problems created by a form of appraisal that values a person based on appearance, erasing anything more than skin-deep.
These are problems created by a form of appraisal that values a person based on appearance, erasing anything more than skin-deep.

I got on the elevator on the eighth floor of the Little Building at 11:52, with barely enough time to get to my noon class. As we descended with stops at each floor, the sighs and groans of the people behind me got louder. When we arrived at the third floor, inevitably—just before the doors opened—someone remarked, “Who takes the elevator down from three?” There were murmurs of agreement before everyone reluctantly made room for the newcomer. 

From the moment I step on an elevator at Emerson until I reach the bottom floor, I am filled with guilt and anxiety despite living on a higher floor where it is socially acceptable not to walk down. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. This can be especially challenging for students with invisible disabilities—those who appear able-bodied, but may actually be suffering from some illness that makes everyday activities (like climbing the stairs) difficult to nearly impossible. Of course no one is going to grumble at a student in a wheelchair or crutches taking the elevator one floor, but you can’t tell from looking at someone if they have a painful autoimmune disorder, arthritis, or even anxiety. It’s presumptuous and ableist—discriminatory against those with disabilities—to shame someone for something as simple as taking an elevator.

I know how harmful and inaccurate these judgements are. When I returned to school this semester, my asthma became exponentially worse. What had for years been a mild annoyance became debilitating, and I am constantly being reminded of it and forced to take care of it. After walking through the cloud of cigarette smoke that often surrounds the entrance of LB, those two flights of stairs can seem like a mountain. If I lived on a lower floor in Little Building, I know the pressure would drive me to skip the elevator and walk, despite my difficulty breathing and pain. Regardless of appearing to be relatively fit, I often find myself struggling to keep pace with friends while just walking down Boylston. Think about how many people we have driven to similar discomfort because of dirty elevator looks, pushing them to put their health second to appease the social climate.  

It’s easy to dismiss those who choose to take the elevator as lazy, but this assumption is damaging both on our campus and in the real world. I have heard horror stories of people being yelled at by strangers for using handicapped parking spaces, simply because they appeared perfectly able. I have friends whose autoimmune disorders were written off as depression, because the doctors didn’t believe their symptoms were bad enough to be anything other than psychosomatic. These are problems created by a form of appraisal that values a person based on appearance, leading to the erasure of anything more than skin-deep. 

Though all invisible disabilities are hard to talk about and live with, some come with an added stigma. When people are able to quantify an illness or point to a physical problem, they are often more likely to take it seriously. This can also lead to divisions even within invisible disabilities, stigmatizing some more than others, especially when it comes to mental illness. I feel more comfortable emailing a professor to tell them I’m having an asthma attack than I do telling them I’m having an anxiety attack. Respiratory levels can be measured, and lungs can be listened to, which quantifies asthma in a way that my anxiety cannot be measured. This means even on the days my anxiety is more debilitating than my asthma, I’m more likely to try to get to class, because the stigma surrounding mental illness tells me that it is not a valid excuse. Even among invisible disabilities, there is a hierarchy. But this hierarchy should not exist, nor should it be determined by the able-bodied. 

In the same way that stigma can be damaging to people with mental illness, it can be for those who suffer from any invisible disabilities. By nature, it is virtually impossible to tell when people have these conditions. In turn, people with disabilities will hear others complain about slow-walkers and those who choose to take the elevator from the third floor. But we know how harmful these judgements are, leading to feelings of guilt and shame for conditions that they can’t help. 

It is ableist to assume that everyone is as physically capable as you are—and if you’re that concerned about getting to class on time, you can always take the stairs.