British Columbia

People with invisible disabilities can deny themselves care amid struggle to be recognized, advocate says

People whose disabilities are invisible to others say that one of the most common barriers they face is that people just don't believe them.

Invisible Disabilities Week raises awareness for those with arthritis, autism, MS, other hidden conditions

Eileen Davidson advocates on behalf of people suffering from invisible disabilities — which include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, autism, fibromyalgia, epilepsy and others. (Chronic Eileen/Facebook)

Eileen Davidson was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was 29 — but it wasn't apparent to anyone who saw her. 

"I kept hearing, 'Oh, but you look fine. You look great. It's just arthritis. Oh, you're young, it's OK,'" Davidson said. 

Davidson said the fact that her illness wasn't apparent made her delay getting care. 

"I actually denied care for a bit because I felt like I didn't need it ... It took a while for me to actually accept that I was living with a debilitating condition," she told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On The Coast.

Today, Davidson advocates on behalf of people suffering from invisible disabilities — which include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, autism, fibromyalgia and epilepsy, among others.

"There are so many [conditions] where you can't tell somebody might be living with them just by looking at them," she said. 

This week marks Invisible Disabilities Week, which was started to address some of the barriers people with such disabilities face — like not being believed they have a disability in the first place.

"When people can't see [the issue], they tend to diminish the severity of the disability. That can be really difficult for somebody who's actually going through it because research suggests that those who have a strong support network actually have better outcomes," said Davidson.

The pandemic has in some ways made the issue more important, Davidson says. It's often the people who downplay these disabilities who also downplay the risk of COVID-19, she says.

"When I'm out and about and I need to keep my social distance and make sure those people around me are vaccinated or wearing a mask, sometimes they may downplay the severity about catching COVID-19, or even just the flu or any respiratory illness," she says. 

Davidson says the most important thing she wants people to take away from her experiences is not to make assumptions about what someone might be going through, despite their outward appearance. 

"Any time you see somebody sitting on a bus or a SkyTrain and they're in a seat for seniors or people with disabilities, even if they're young, they may still be dealing with a disability," she said.

Corrections

  • Eileen Davidson's last name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story.
    Oct 19, 2021 1:10 PM PT

With files from On The Coast

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