I became disabled relatively late in life and didn’t fully appreciate the ways people with disabilities are discriminated against. That changed when I acquired a chronic pain disability that radically changed my life. During that lonely and difficult transition I learned how uncomfortable non-disabled people are even talking about disabilities, seemingly thinking they are somehow contagious.
Shortly after joining CFILC, I met with the Executive Director of the State Independent Living Council. After listening to my disability story she told me:
“Be aware that people with hidden disabilities can find adjusting harder if people don’t believe they are actually disabled.”
I was puzzled by her words. Managing my disability is a daily challenge. Yet, I couldn’t see how my life could be “harder” than wheelchair users or those with other disabilities.
My first hidden disability experience showed me that such prejudice and discrimination comes in many manifestations. The common thread is ignorance or the public’s perception we enjoy special protections and “privileges” they are denied.
It occurred on a recent Hawaiian vacation. Travelling always aggravates my pain, especially sitting in airport lounge chairs or prolonged standing waiting to board flights.
I’ve learned that early boarding to be seated and avoid passenger jostling helps. So, I always check in to request pre-boarding. Airlines are always accommodating and never ask for “proof,” although I always keep my Morphine prescription bottle handy.
On a recent inter-island flight, my wife and I arrived just as pre-boarding was ending. The flight attendant waved that we could pre-board, but a man waiting for standard boarding loudly complained that I was cutting in and should get back in line.
I ignored him. However, my wife told him I pre-board because of a back disability.
“Oh, please. Maybe next time I’ll pretend I have a bad back too.”
Hearing this, she glared and told him I had experienced 10 years of constant nerve pain. What did it matter to him if the only benefit of pre-boarding was to sit in my pre-assigned seat? His face turned red and he didn’t reply. Checkmate.
These reactions are typical of the lack of public awareness about what it’s like living with hidden and visible disabilities. Many of us have heard complaints whenever people park in disabled parking spaces and walk into a building. They presume they are not “really disabled” if they can walk, ignoring the fact they may have a respiratory or mobility disability. Not every disability is visible.
Of course, my insignificant airport experience pales in comparison to horror stories I’ve heard from friends in wheel chairs. Airport physical accessibility remains a problem and many are mishandled or dehumanized going through security screening.
We must continue to educate people that disabilities are not stigmas. Anyone can acquire a disability, and if they do, they are entitled to the hard-earned civil rights protections that promote equal opportunities and living productive lives. As our population ages, even more people will acquire hidden and visible disabilities.
This is one reason why we must continue the struggle to protect our rights.