Last semester, I got the opportunity to interview a few students with invisible disabilities for a class project. In the interviews, I was astounded to hear that these students often feel erased in their daily experiences on campus.
One student talked about how embarrassing it was to disclose their invisible disability to others. Another student talked about the anger they face from people who assume they are abusing handicap parking spaces or other accommodations because they “look fine.” Many students even mentioned how their other identities (like race, sexuality, size, etc.) affect the way that people perceive their disability. For example, a black, female student I talked to often had to miss class because it was too painful for her to walk there in her condition. Though she presented her professor with doctor’s note after doctor’s note, he continued to ask for more proof. She wondered if he couldn’t bring himself to believe her because she was black, because she was a woman, or because he just couldn’t understand that her disability was invisible.
Typically, when we discuss disability issues in higher education, we center our conversations around access for students with physical disabilities. Though these conversations are still needed, and should be valued in our practice, we need to also explore how we can better serve students with invisible disabilities. Below, I have gathered a few starting tips on how to support students with invisible disabilities based off my conversations with these students, but I also highly encourage you to connect with the Office of Disability Services at your institution as they can help to provide you with even more information!
Tip #1: Educate yourself
The term “invisible disabilities” encompasses a whole array of disabilities that range from mental health disabilities like anxiety and depression, to medical conditions like Crohn’s disease, Lupus, or severe IBS, to learning disabilities. There are so many that I can’t list them all here; for this reason, it is necessary for us to continuously educate ourselves on how to best support these students.
Like all social justice work, the first step will always start with educating yourself about yourself. What is your present knowledge of invisible disabilities? Do you have an invisible disability? If so, how does that shape your practice? If not, how does that shape your practice if at all?
Next- it’s your job to listen. Read articles about how students navigate campus with depression or attend an event that centers students who have eating disabilities. Listen to students when they express their concerns about accommodations and figure out ways to create discussion around invisible disability in your Residence Halls.
Though Netflix and other media portrayals can be good to educate you on certain topics (shows/movies like 13 Reasons Why, To the Bone, and Atypical for instance) check the information you receive with critical, online responses by people with invisible disabilities. Connect with offices like Office of Disability Services and Mental Health Services before you utilize media portrayals like this for programs because they can often be triggering for people with these disabilities.
Tip #2: Make Your Practice Inclusive
When you host fun programs or retreats for your staff, do you typically choose bonding activities like laser tag or kick ball? How can these types of activities other students with invisible disabilities? Are there possible accommodations that you could provide for students with invisible disabilities for laser tag or kick ball? Or, can you have just as much fun if you do a Chopped-style cooking competition or a karaoke night that could be more inclusive? Are there ways to make my last examples more bearable for students who may have unhealthy relationships with food or anxiety about singing in front of others?
Though I understand it’s not possible for every event to be completely inclusive of all students every time, we need to think about how to practice inclusion in every experience we provide for students from staff meetings to trainings to bonding activities. The first question that each experience should start with is “How can we do our best to make sure that we are including all students in this space?”
Tip #3: Validate their Stories
Many of the students that myself and my group members talked to were hesitant to identify with the term “disability.” A student with severe IBS said that he felt like he was taking power away from students with physical disabilities by identifying himself with disability. Students with mental health disabilities have been told so often to “suck it up” and just “get over it” that many even wonder if their disability is real. Disability, in our culture, has been tied to physicality, and this binary of “physically disabled” or “able” has led to the oppression and erasure of many students.
Students with invisible disabilities have their own coming out process where they are forced to continuously disclose their disability to receive accommodation and validation.
When we are confronted with that moment, it is our job as professionals to offer comfort and assurance that their stories matter. It is our job as professionals to accommodate their needs as much as we can by being inclusive in our practice and continuously educating ourselves, our staff, and our peers about invisible disabilities.
So much of Residence Life is about creating homes away from home. If we are really dedicated to that mission, then we have to foster belonging for ALL students whether they “look fine” or not.