In middle school, a combination of medical and life circumstances caused me to fall so far behind that when I entered high school, I was placed in nearly all special-ed courses. My high school teachers liked to refer to them as “alternative program” classes to normalize being separated from our peers.
Despite missing my friends who were placed in “normal” classes, I am able to reflect back and say all of my best memories from high school came from that placement.
However, many of my most frustrating moments in high school were observing my new friends from the alternative program interact with others. I recall many of the students in “regular” courses — including those who would volunteer to spend more time with students from the alternative program — being absolute jerks to those in the program.
When I, as a high school freshman, pondered over how poorly my friends from the alternative program were treated, I soon had a world-shattering epiphany: Those who showed up to the Fox Valley Special Olympics and Mid Valley Special Education events to work with us were superficial phonies, and many were only willing to treat those with disabilities kindly if they could see and understand the disability they were expected to accommodate.
People need to be given an explanation when excusing others from social or cultural norms. Someone may be forgiven for not meeting whatever social rule exists if others have context of their disability or difference, but without the context, a harsh consequence for not following the unwritten rules may be given.
Many in the alternative program, including myself, were out of luck, not granted empathy. Even though they all had disabilities and were deserving of understanding, they were insulted and given the cold shoulder, because other students thought they were screwing with them, or even worse, dangerous.
I wanted to know if I was the only one who had noticed how poorly people with invisible disabilities were treated, or if I was looking back on my public education days with a bit too much self-righteousness or paranoia.
To get more information, I contacted people from the Illinois Department of Human Services to get their perspective on the subject, curious if adults with invisible disabilities were treated as unfairly cold as they are as teenagers.
Together, Sally, Joe, Margie, and Lori have a combination of 87 years working as rehabilitation counselors and case coordinators helping Illinoisans with different types of disabilities get employment-related services from the state. While the others would be considered generalists, Joe specifically works with the deaf population of Illinois as a rehabilitation counselor.
Q: What are some “invisible” disabilities that your clients may have?
Lori: Invisible disabilities we see a lot include learning disabilities, epilepsy, mental health issues, chronic pain or auto-immune disorders, being hard-of-hearing, or any number of other health conditions that limit interactions or independence, on a regular basis.
Q: What unique social struggles do people with invisible disabilities face?
Joe: Their struggles are not as open as those who have mobility issues like wheelchair users,
amputees, or people who are visibly blind, for example, so society tends to doubt that their
disabilities are legitimate. Often we will find that people with so-called minor mobility issues or
those who tire easily, for example, are looked at askance when they park in the “handicapped”
parking spots or use a scooter in a store, even though they are unable to walk through the
entire store or mall.
Sally: — and people who have learning disabilities, brain injuries or memory issues get a lot of
negative feedback from people they encounter in public, they appear to be okay, but once you
start talking to them, it gets complicated really fast — they don’t react as quickly, they forget
names, or they need to read and reread material in order to comprehend it. Sometimes they
even need to work with the material before they will completely understand a concept, so
classroom material might not make sense until they do a lab, for example. They need to apply
the information before they completely “get” it.
Margie: We encourage a lot of our customers to use lists or use their cell phones to take notes
as reminders, but sometimes their bosses don’t like that because it looks like they are getting
to “play on their phone” when in reality they’re just trying to keep up with everyone else. So we
try to teach them to advocate with their employers and talk to their coworkers and explain why
they need those devices. Sometimes it’s hard to get that process started but it can really pay
Q: Does people not seeing they have a disability cause people to be less empathetic?
Sally: Especially in today’s political climate — people think they can touch pregnant women’s
bellies, insult people using the handicapped parking spots, and all that. Sometimes it is almost
easier to have a severe mobility issue, and use a wheelchair, if you’re in public — that way
people aren’t judging you. They let you be. It’s bad that they feel sorry for people in a
wheelchair but at least they don’t yell at those folks for using a handicapped spot or going to
the front of the line at an amusement park.
Joe: If you’re deaf and you don’t respond when someone behind you asks a question you’re
taking your life in your hands these days. People get really mad. When that happens, I just
turn around and start frantically signing at them; a lot of times I don’t even let on that I can talk
because they just get even more mad. They don’t understand that some deaf people can talk
and lip read; we just can’t hear — they get frustrated and it can be dangerous.
Q: How does this impact their peer relationships at work or school?
Lori: Oftentimes, if peers don’t understand they have a disability, like I said, they’ll be less
empathetic. I’ve seen cases where tall buff guys kept asking the same question because of
“working memory issues.” Or, without being aware of how it may come off, chased down shorter
girls in the middle of the night just cause they needed directions. It can be pretty traumatizing
for them when they learn that they actually made someone uncomfortable, because that’s not
When I see conversations about supporting people with disabilities, it’s often centered around
visible disabilities, disabilities others can easily see, understand, and accommodate. But I advocate for showing respect to those with disabilities that aren’t visible.
After all, kindness should not only extend to those with a visible disability. Supporting those with a disability is about having an open mind when a classmate whom one doesn’t know very well takes extra long to solve a problem.
It’s about not judging walking individuals when they decide to take the elevator or sit in a handicap spot. It’s giving people a second chance during social interactions when someone might do something incredibly awkward, or forget your name for the hundredth time, or take forever to say hi because they simply lost the words.
All of this may sound like common courtesy that has nothing to do with whether someone has a disability or not, but that’s the point. If you would be patient with someone if you knew they had a disability, be kind to them even if you don’t know, because, for all you know, they do.