“Sometimes I wish I could physically collapse so others would recognize the pain I was feeling,” said Fay Sukparangsee (25C), a student with an invisible illness.
People with invisible disabilities face unique challenges with healthcare professionals and the general public due to deep-rooted stereotypes and ableism, according to the World Health Organization. Women, in particular, face issues with other people taking their disability seriously.
An invisible disability is different from a visible disability in that symptoms, such as pain or brain fog, are not apparent to others.
Approximately 10% of individuals in the United States have an invisible disability or chronic illness, according to the University of Massachusetts.
Chronic, invisible illnesses such as Lyme disease, lupus, fibromyalgia and Crohn’s disease are more common in women, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
Those with invisible disabilities, including within the Emory community, must navigate daily life without apparent symptoms.
English Department Chair Benjamin Reiss, who specializes in disability studies and health humanities, said that people who have invisible disabilities can be perceived as “faking” or “exaggerating” their condition.
“That feeling of having to ‘prove’ your disability can also be psychologically taxing, leading to self-doubt or a sense of being misunderstood,” Reiss said.
Additionally, women are often diagnosed later than men. Because of this, women can suffer serious medical complications due to late diagnosis.
“Most women don’t get [their disability] recognized and suffer trying to figure out why they struggle so much,” Sarah Benderoth (95C) said.
Students also described their experiences with feeling ashamed and discouraged to share their health struggles, especially when it comes to their mental health.
Even when individuals with invisible disabilities do not need medical equipment, they still need understanding, Sukparangsee said.
“If the disability is invisible, so might be the barriers,” Reiss said. “Identifying the barriers is the first step toward removing them.”
Sukparangsee said that she hopes to see more awareness on campus for people with invisible disabilities. Widespread in the United Kingdom, the Sunflower Lanyard Program involves invisibly disabled or chronically ill people wearing sunflower lanyards to symbolize a need for more space, patience and compassion.
“Often, those suffering may feel that it is just impossible to get through the most impossible times,” Sukparangsee said. “But, hopefully, by initiating important conversations, they can feel that there is hope in every direction that life may take.”
Reiss said that a recent increase in representation of people with invisible disabilities in the media can have a positive impact in spreading awareness.
“One very positive development in recent years is that there are more and more avenues for people to share their experiences openly, through publishing memoirs, websites and social media,” Reiss said. “Film, media, TV representation and educational resources are also vital in increasing awareness.”
For Emory students looking to get involved, the University has an interdisciplinary Disability Studies Initiative, which hosts events and promotes research.
While there are many ways to increase visibility, Reiss said that awareness is often met with stigma and ableism on a college campus.
“Politics is the forum for addressing systemic barriers to full inclusion,” Reiss said. Advocating for disabled rights is imperative for promoting equality.