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Not all disabilities are visible

It has taken a while for me to reconcile with the fact that I have always been disabled.

I have a genetic illness which didn’t start affecting me too badly until I was in my teens, puberty hitting me and starting a chain of joint issues which have cumulated in me being a fulltime wheelchair user. However, as I child I also had undiagnosed dyslexia and ADHD which made school a challenge.

I remember teachers telling me off for not paying enough attention in class and I was bewildered, because I thought I had been paying attention. I shared a desk with a boy with diagnosed ADHD and when I shared that I couldn’t concentrate because he was a big distraction for me, I was reprimanded and told that he couldn’t help it.

But I couldn’t help it either.

Teachers shook their head at my difficulties with spelling, telling me to work harder. They missed the dyslexia for so long that I found coping mechanisms to get around it, changing sentence structures to avoid words that I’d forgotten how to spell.

I was invisibly disabled until suddenly I wasn’t. I have lived through two completely different experiences of disability, one in which I wasn’t believed because I didn’t look disabled, and another where others see me as vulnerable and, sometimes, as a target for hate.

Both visible and invisible disabilities have their advantages and disadvantages. It is so much easier for me to get the PIP award I’m entitled to now that I’m visibly disabled. Doctors are more likely to take me seriously when I speak about my health. People look at me and see the accommodations I need and are less likely to view me as lazy. I don’t receive judgement for using the disabled toilet or blue badge parking bays.

But people also see my disability. I can’t pretend that I’m non-disabled for job interviews. Bus drivers are more likely to drive off when they see me or refuse me access onto a bus. I’m a bigger target for hate crimes, derogatory names called after me on the streets. People seeing me as a benefits scrounger, a burden on the state.

There are days where I wish I could go back in time to when I had an invisible disability. When my joints pained me, but I was still able to walk. When people saw me using crutches and assumed that I’d injured my leg. Other days I’m grateful that people see me as disabled. That I can use accommodations without judgement. That people look at me and know what my most pressing access needs are.

But it’s not really a change in how my disability presents itself that I long for. I long for more understanding about disabilities. I want disabled people to be treated fairly, to be believed about the nature of their disabilities. I want a life without ableism marring my progress through the world. I want disabled people to have the same opportunities as non-disabled people.

I want to be happy, cared for, and listened to.

Hannah Murgatroyd, Equal Lives Volunteer

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