Now you see me: How my disability went from invisible to visible
I don't like crowds. I'm short. In the right shoes, I can pass for 5' 7", but I'm really 5' 6". In a crowd, I usually can't see more than the backs of the people around me and people don't see me and bump into me all the time. I'm constantly worried about being trampled. When my husband and I are out in a crowd and someone runs over over me, I joke that I've "become invisible." I become invisible a lot, apparently, because people just don't seem to notice me. I even try wearing bright colors to stand out but it doesn't seem to help. Most people seem too wrapped up in whatever it is they are doing to notice that there is a very nice short guy standing next to them and, OUCH, you just stepped on me. (I have the opposite problem with birds. They always know exactly where I am and adjust their flight patterns to aim directly at my face. I don't know why, but it's true.) This hasn't been a pressing problem lately, since I haven't been in able to go out much. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the About Adam Tilted page.) As my condition has improved, I'm now able to get around with the help of a cane. Using a cane can literally be a pain. I've stubbed my toe kicking my cane. I've tripped over it. I drop it more times than I can count. Using the cane has had another interesting effect that I wasn't expecting.
The cane made me visible.
Now you see me. Everyone sees me coming when I'm using the cane. People make an effort to get out my way, hold doors open, move their kids to the side, and offer me a seat. That got me thinking about the difference between invisible disabilities and visible ones.
When you think of disabilities, you probably think of someone in a wheelchair, or someone missing a limb. Something you can see. There are so many other kinds of disabilities that you may not see: cancer, HIV, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, dyslexia, fibromyalgia, learning disabilities, and migraines are just a few examples. It can be difficult for people with "invisible" disabilities to get the type of kind consideration that I've experienced from people who see me walking with my cane. I've had an invisible disability for a long time before my current dizzy condition, so I have some experience with this. If you don't know what this disability is then you probably don't need to know, so don't worry about it. The point is that I know what it is like to suffer in silence when everyone thinks you should be fine.
At the start of my current dizzy situation, when I thought it was going to be short-lived and before I got the cane, I went to brunch with a friend. It was my first time out of the house in two months. I was pretty unsteady on my feet and had to stop every now and then to hold on to something to get my balance. After brunch, we stopped in at a shop and my friend bought a few things. She said she would go get the car so I wouldn't have to walk. After she left, the store clerk gave me some crap about making my friend, the woman, go get the car for me. I actually like it when ignorant people say stuff like this because it gives me a chance to educate. I'm going to ignore the sexist element of this statement for now; I could write an entire article on that alone.
I told the clerk that my friend was going to get the car because I was recovering from an illness and had difficulty walking. Maybe she had seen me clinging to the wall a few moments ago? She was a little embarrassed and told me that she didn't realize. I gently told her that I understood, but suggested that she not be so quick to judge people that she didn't know anything about. I pointed out that if I had been wearing a cast on my leg, she wouldn't have thought twice about my friend going to get the car while I waited. It might serve her and her customers better if she just assumed that everyone needed some extra help instead of assuming that someone was being lazy and taking advantage of his friend. We ended up having a nice conversation about jumping to conclusions and I was glad I hadn't just let it go.
Having dizzy spells is weird, because other people can't really tell that I'm dizzy. Sometimes the expression on my face gives it away, but they don't see the world tilting like I do. They just see that I've suddenly stopped whatever I was doing, maybe closed my eyes or reached out for a wall. Before I was using the cane, people who didn't know about my condition would probably think I was drunk. I've gotten some disparaging looks from people that seemed to say, "Maybe you should lay off the bottle, buddy." I get it. I can be snarky, too. If I saw someone suddenly lose his balance and cling to the wall, I'd probably think it was funny, too. It is funny sometimes. That's one of the reasons people get drunk. It's fun to lose control, but only if you're going to get it back. It's not fun for me because it happens everyday. The cane seems to signal that to people, so they know that it's not funny.
The cane turned my disability from invisible to visible.
That's great for me, but what about those other people with invisible disabilities?
According to Disability Statistics, just over 12% of Americans are living with a disability as of 2011. That's over 3 million people. Chances are, you will encounter some of us pretty often. Much of the time, you will not be able to see the disability, so you won't know who we are. So, give everyone a break. Try noticing the people around you, and realize that they are struggling just as much or more than you are, and do a little something to help. Hold the door for someone. Offer your seat to someone. Let someone merge in front of you in traffic. Smile.
If it helps, imagine them walking with a cane.