Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Invisible vs Visible Disabilities

On the corners of the internet I frequent the most, I’ve seen a lot of what I call ‘Oppression Olympics’, where people of certain types of disabilities claim to have things worse than people with other types of disabilities.  This isn’t a new thing of course, nor is it exclusive to the disability sector.  People love to draw comparisons.  It’s why some people when having a rough time with things see someone suffering, they’ll go ‘oh well at least I don’t have that problem’, or you’ll get people comparing their various aches and pains or misfortunes in conversation.  Obviously from the post title, you’ll have gathered that I’m writing specifically about the comparisons of visible versus invisible disability, as I seem to be seeing more and more posts comparing the two as worse or better than each other.

The argument that people with invisible disabilities (and I’m including mental health issues in this as they can be just as disabling) have things worse than people with visible disabilities is because people can’t deny that someone has a disability if it’s visible, so they are therefore more likely to be taken seriously and have their needs met.  Meanwhile the argument that those with visible disabilities have things worse is because their disabilities are obvious and come with a lot of unwanted attention, while those with invisible disabilities have the ‘luxury’ of being able to (at least in appearance) blend in.

The entire argument is ridiculous to me and like comparing apples and oranges.  That’s not to say that the points are untrue, but it is disingenuous to conclude that they mean that one is worse than the other.  The truth is, they are both disadvantaged from not being the able-bodied and/or neurotypical norm of our society.  Being visibly disabled does not necessarily guarantee having your needs met and those with invisible disabilities do not necessarily blend into the crowd.

My main disability, scoliosis (to the degree I have it anyway) is VERY much visible and thus there is no denying that I am disabled.  Though I also have other disabilities that are not immediately obvious and could be considered ‘invisible’ – I had one tutor who taught me for three years before she discovered I had profound hearing loss because I had a very good hearing aid and I was used to compensating (keeping people on my left side where the hearing aid microphone was so I could hear them better).  None of these guaranteed my needs were met, and I don’t feel more or less disadvantaged or advantaged than other people with disabilities.  They all come with problems.  Why?  Because able-bodied and neurotypical is the norm – the default to which our societal structures are set up.  And given that our society is aging with more and more experiencing disability due to age, this really needs to change.  But that won’t happen if there is so much infighting and oppression Olympics in the existing disability community.

No two experiences of disability are the same, and competing against each other is pointless when nothing will change until societal attitudes and behaviour toward disability and people with disabilities change.  And why shouldn’t they?  Disabled people are human beings as deserving of respect as anyone else.

Have you experienced/seen this oppression Olympics phenomenon online or in real life?  Share in the comments! 


  1. I'm so glad you're talking about this! The infighting you've described causes so much division in our community when it needs us so badly to stick together... It even cost me an old friend. In college, my roommate acquired an invisible disability, which was her first real experience with that side of the ability spectrum besides being friends with me-- A wheelchair user. She turned it into a competition at every turn, would get defensive when I tried to argue that they both are equally difficult for different reasons (due to the nature of our society at that moment), and would keep a running tab on my advantage and her disadvantage. It got to the point where I actually got sucked in to the argument I was trying to avoid, saying that stairs have never prevented her from entering a building or her hiding the disorder to escape discrimination was something I would never have the privilege to do. It was horrible and so unnecessary. We could have banded together as a team, but instead we became divided. Much of this type of thinking seemed to originate from a place of pure fear and internalized ableism. She was abled and used to belonging to the privledged group up until that point, so a great deal of those issues came surging forth to be dealt with in the only way she saw how. With easy access to this kind of infighting and very little viability of both groups banding together, it's no shock that many folks take that road. I'm so glad you are one of the voices showing that there's another way, that we're stronger when not divided. It's like fresh air!

    1. That's awful! I'm so sorry. Definitely see it a lot and it sucks.