Invisible Disabilities and Casual Ableism

Updated: Jun 19

Putting great faith in society and its members, I can hope to say we have come a long way in empathizing with and catering to disabilities that are ‘physically manifested’; ramps in public spaces, offers to help with mobility aids, a careful approach for the student with a 'disability’ in class and similar well-meaning displays. However, progress is still little to null when it comes to disabilities that aren’t immediately apparent. Invisible disability, or hidden disability, is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. This includes learning disabilities like dyslexia, developmental disabilities like Autism or ADHD. Other physical challenges such as visual/auditory disabilities are sometimes less apparent too if the hearing aid is discrete or contacts used instead of glasses. With hidden disabilities comes an entire culture of casual ableism.

Not every disability is visible
© Getty Images; Not every disability is visible

Casual Ableism is so deeply ingrained in society, where a distinct lack of inclusivity and ignorance has made differentiating between ‘right of opinion’ and blatant ableism next to impossible. The term refers to the subtle discrimination in favour of able-bodied people, usually hidden in seemingly innocent phrases, conversations, actions or lack thereof. An example in point is ableist comments like “You don’t look disabled!”, “You do *insert action* pretty well for a disabled person” being treated as compliments, almost as if looking and acting able-bodied is a standard everyone should aim to achieve. This is extremely harmful in every sense, for it not only leads to unrealistic stereotypes of disabilities but these stereotypes can and often will lead to physical harm. It can prevent individuals with disabilities from receiving the medical help they require because it is often thought they are either exaggerating their symptoms or the symptoms are not ‘supposed to be this bad’. More examples of harmful stereotypes include physical restraint in case of autism and meltdowns being seen as a solution, which is not only extremely traumatising but physically harmful as well. The problem with setting “able-bodied and neurotypical” as the standard is, (in most cases) the failure to accommodate anyone who’s not. It can be seen in the case of jobs and the workplace, with differently-abled individuals, first of all, have an extremely hard time finding these jobs, and an even harder one maintaining them because of how the expectations placed on them are comparisons to neurotypical and able-bodied individuals. It also leads to accommodating these disabilities being seen as a privilege instead of a basic human right.

Terminology is very important and it is utmost necessary you respect it. Some people prefer ‘people with a disability’ (person-first approach)’ and ‘hard of hearing’. Others are comfortable with being called ‘a disabled individual’ (disability first approach; owning their disability proudly) or ‘ Deaf with a capital D to own their pride as a deaf person’ as Khaula puts it. Most people on the autistic spectrum prefer ‘autistic person’ yet there are still people who are more comfortable with ‘person with autism.’ This is common courtesy; ask for preferred terms just like you ask for someone's pronouns.

My aunts grew up Hard Of Hearing (HoH; their preferred terms) in the late 90s and early 2000s. Amina and Khaula have forever been personal inspirations. Amina (an artist by nature and jewelry designer by profession) now a lecturer and professor at one of Pakistan’s most prestigious art institutions with her own international business and Khaula (higher education consultant and advocate for people with disabilities) is running her own inclusive education consultancy, primarily to push more students with disabilities to study abroad. Both have a strong, global client base. It hurts and infuriates me in equal measure to say early childhood stories of ableism, discrimination, and bullying in schools and within the family are almost to be expected at this point. However, it is their experiences of casual ableism in today’s society, which has laid claim to progress, inclusivity, and diversity, that are even more concerning. A small case in point being the casual ableist comments thrown at them on a regular basis; “you aren't really deaf you just pretend to be.” “maybe you can try listening better?” or “why don't you try and listen?”. These comments have been there since their very childhood, Khaula explains, in school, specifically during dictation and oral tests where teachers would move around the class (already making it hard to decipher what they were saying and lip-read) and refuse to repeat themselves again. It follows today with people refusing to repeat themselves and having the audacity to get frustrated when they’re not understood.

Khaula says; “ I get a lot of comments by the likes of ‘I might be wrong here but I think people look down on you most probably because of your hearing and speech', during my teaching experience. I had to fight for my rights in school because students weren’t able to understand me, despite the school being well renowned for its diversity and inclusive hiring. I have been told that since I can speak in person, I must be able to speak on the phone as well. At work in a different company, I had a senior constantly reassure me that the company’s evaluation had nothing to do with my hearing challenge despite me not bringing it up.”

The performative activism and lack of inclusivity are fairly obvious here, stemming from ignorance and once again demonstrating just how much effort is put in to exclude differently-abled individuals from public spaces.

Amina (regarding such ableist remarks) has pointed out how they are questionable for multiple reasons; “Words matter: the way they are composed and the choice of words used reveal discriminatory undertones. They also pinpoint, and magnify the enormity of the challenge listening is in the hearing disability spectrum: to be asked to listen better when words do not reach you through the mic or online trajectory (or even in physical encounters) is not a suggestion to try and listen better. They pinpoint and make you aware of the negative connotations, the limitations associated with listening. And this I feel is a violation of rights. And demonstrative of complete lack of empathy.”

Situations like these and remarks such as above are initiated in a space and community where there is no support system and a pervasive lack of empathy prevails. No transcriptions, no written support, limited time given to practice and acclimatize with meetings and other similar cases of casual ableism. More personal examples from Amina and Khaula’s lives include subtle social exclusion in conversations such as hearing people lowering their voices in conversations, or, conversing in a way that people who are deaf or hard of hearing won't decipher in a group setting.

Casual Ableist culture also heavily persists with regards to neurodiversity with remarks like “You’re verbal, you can’t be autsitic” “ Girls can’t have ADHD, besides you don’t look like you have it” (based on the image of a small white boy with hyperactivity issues). Our entire perception of social rules and norms is constructed on ableist ideas. You say you would never intentionally be ableist towards an Autistic person but still point someone out for not making eye contact, being socially awkward, talking ‘too much’ about their special interests and for stimming. You say you accommodate someone with ADHD yet reprimand them for fidgeting too much, forgetting tasks and instructions, having time management issues, and interrupting you often. In fact, the entire so-called ‘cringe-culture’ overlaps a lot with common neurodivergent traits; getting really excited about a topic, using tone indicators, ‘childish’ interests, spending a lot of time ‘in your own world.’ and similar actions that flood the Instagram comment sections with “Why are they so cringey OML”. What truly saddens me is that we have turned experiencing joy through freedom of expression into a ‘bad thing.’ Should things that bring one joy not deserve to be celebrated alongside individual differences?

Workspaces and educational institutions specifically are extremely non-inclusive to the neurodivergent, with refusal to accommodate developmental or learning disabilities. Presentations, strict deadlines, banning fidget toys etc. While on the surface it may seem like the “normal” way to go about things, they cause extreme discomfort to neurodivergent individuals; sounds coming from different sources may trigger auditory processing problems and meltdowns with regards to forced participation in school assemblies or not being allowed to leave the room when overwhelmed. Neurodivergent individuals constantly have to mask their traits which leads to frequent and intense burnouts alongside worsening other underlying conditions that often accompany neurodivergence such as depression, anxiety, and similar mental illnesses. Another upsetting fact regarding neurodivergence and individuals with disabilities is the extremely high unemployment rates they face.

As humans, each of us is set apart by our uniqueness and abilities, or lack of, that distinctly make us, us. Other than being a crime against the very essence of what it means to be human, ableism is also a tool that limits the potential of these individuals who have so much to give to this word. Imagine a world with more Emily Dickinsons (autistic), Marlee Matlins (academy award-winning deaf actress) and Einsteins (Autism/ADHD). The very first step to ending ableist culture is education yourself directly from the source. Listen to podcasts by individuals with disabilities, follow their blogs and Instagram pages (disabilityinsight and disabilitytogether are amazing pages if you have no idea where to start), read their books and then emphasize to others why educating themselves is so important. To start off, I have highlighted a few terms inside the article which I highly encourage you to research with regards to disabilities. Communication is key! Every individual with a disability is different and has a different way of communication; you must learn to communicate on their terms rather than have them fit into a mould of communication you see fit. Refrain from ‘teaching’ people with disabilities how they should self-identify! Remember, it all comes down to compassion. Show empathy. Learn to be mindful of the experiences of others. Listen! Be a good ally and fulfill your moral obligation, because, in the end, the world is a difficult place to navigate and even more so for individuals with disabilities, so the one trait we can never have enough of, is kindness.

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