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What Happens When You’re Disabled but Nobody Can Tell

2020-07-10 09:00:52

Invisible disabilities may be invisible even to the people whom they affect. Roy Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology, international affairs and human sciences at George Washington University, recently described a student who had felt inadequate until she entered college. “Getting diagnosed with A.D.H.D. was one of the best days of my freshman year,” she told him and her classmates, “because someone actually saw that I wasn’t stupid or lazy, that I just needed treatment.”

The coronavirus pandemic has surfaced the particular problems faced by those with invisible disabilities. Many people who were in supported housing have left because of the risk of contagion, and are now expected to care for themselves or find a family member who will take care of them. When someone who uses a walker leaves his assisted-living community, the walker is neither discarded nor confiscated, but for those whose disabilities manifest in subtler ways, the system of care is itself the prosthesis, and it has been snatched away.

Many of those who have “recovered” from Covid-19 will continue to face significant health problems for the rest of their lives. At a moment of record unemployment, disabled people are prone to face particularly steep challenges in finding work; at a time when, according to one study, nearly one-third of Americans are suffering from some form of psychological distress, including depression and anxiety, it may be hard to find a job candidate with a completely clean bill of health.

The pandemic may add to the ranks of the disabled. After this time of anguish, many people will want to return to the ostensible (and illusory) social norm of “ability” and robust well-being; we fear disability and illness now more than ever. It will not be surprising if people choose not to disclose their newly-acquired limitations and instead bear the burden of secrecy. Stigma has not melted away while we’ve been in quarantine. There can be no question that accommodating disabilities is costly. Not accommodating disabled people is costly, too; when the disability is invisible, it often goes unaccommodated, A.D.A. or no A.D.A. Research has demonstrated that people who are keeping significant personal secrets become preoccupied with them, living in a private hell and expending their energy on concealment.

This strategy of personal concealment serves no advantage at all: not for the person affected, for the employer or for a society deprived of the very real contributions people with invisible disabilities would otherwise stand to make.

Andrew Solomon (@Andrew_Solomon) is a professor of medical clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and the author of “Far From the Tree,” which has been made into a documentary film, and of “The Noonday Demon” and “Far and Away.”


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