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The Carletonian

Making the Invisible Visible takes on disability stigma

<tober 14 to 20, Carleton is honoring Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week with a week of programming to raise the profile of invisible disabilities. The Disability Services Office has organized an October 19 panel discussion, Making the Invisible Visible, as the week’s capstone event. Student speakers at the event will discuss their experiences with invisible disabilities such as ADHD, sleep disorders, hearing loss, and traumatic brain injuries. In addition, the Disability Services Office has coordinated tabling and posters to highlight the presence of invisible disabilities on campus.

The Invisible Disabilities Association defines an invisible disability as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities that is invisible to the onlooker.” While invisible disabilities constitute a broad category that includes depression, anxiety, chronic health conditions, severe food allergies, learning disabilities (LDs) and autism, they can go unnoticed because they are, by their nature, difficult to discern.

One of the co-organizers of Making the Invisible Visible, Julia Wellisch ’19, is excited about the panel discussion because it illustrates that invisible disabilities are “finally being recognized in the Carleton community.” The event’s other co-organizer and one of its speakers, Julia Preston ’19, said the event arose from a desire to build community around disability on campus.

“This panel is important for Carleton because there is often a sense of shame around talking about disability, and many people feel as if they are alone in their experiences,” Preston said. “We aim to open up conversation about the many ways Carleton students have been affected by their disabilities, both on campus and throughout their lives.”

During Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week and beyond, students have played a major role in efforts to make invisible disabilities more visible on campus. Last academic year, Rebecca Margolis ’21 co-founded Carleton’s chapter of Eye to Eye, a national organization that connects college students with learning and attention issues to local student mentees with the same disabilities. Margolis will also be speaking at the panel discussion. She knows students with invisible disabilities can succeed in rigorous academic environments, but also wishes people knew academic successes do not mean that disabilities have disappeared.

“Just because I am academically successful at an ‘elite’ college doesn’t mean I can suddenly spell or get my thoughts down on paper efficiently,” Margolis said. “I have accepted that utilizing accommodations, putting in extra effort and being open about my LD and ADHD are what enable me to be successful.”

Students with invisible disabilities often need to put in extra effort to make sure that they can be successful and safe in their environments. Lewis White ’20, who has severe food allergies, is aware that actions need not be ill-intentioned to create stressful situations for people with invisible disabilities. He has to stay alert because the nuts people consume in public spaces pose a hazard to his health.

“I’ve seen people eating peanuts in classes or in study rooms, and I’ve seen peanuts actually on the table surfaces,” he said. “That can be incredibly dangerous for me, and furthermore, it makes me nervous about working in such places again.”

White said that people can help by being more aware of where they are eating nuts and being cognizant of how they are framing allergies. While allergies are often discussed as a minor inconvenience, he says that focusing on the milder side of the harm spectrum can make people “disregard the severity of allergies” that pose a life-threatening risk to some students.

A general lack of awareness makes life more challenging for people with invisible disabilities. Hannah Klein ’21, another speaker at Making the Invisible Visible, has experienced firsthand how adjustments such as early registration and housing adjustments help her function at Carleton, but has also witnessed negative reactions to accommodations others sometimes perceive as “unfair.”

Conversations about disabilities are especially difficult when people undermine the impact of invisible disabilities and say accommodations are unnecessary. Klein said people sometimes tell her she doesn’t deserve accommodations because she is doing better, when in fact she is “doing better due to the accommodations, and removing them would only set [her] back.”

Such interactions reflect the larger issue of how people can make campus life more hospitable to people with invisible disabilities. In many cases, these changes start at the level of individual behaviors. When asked what others could do to be more supportive, Klein had a specific suggestion.

“Give me the benefit of the doubt that even though they may not understand why I have a specific accommodation, I actually do need it and I’m not just working the system,” she said. “Accommodations are in place to bring me up to a normal level of functioning and don’t give me any sort of unfair advantage.”

Margolis agreed that change needs to start on the level of individual interactions. She said it took her until early high school to become “truly comfortable self-advocating and publicly talking about [her] LD and ADHD,” and suggested that others could also learn to discuss disability more productively.

“People need to start talking about disabilities,” she said. “The only way to break down stigma and normalize disability is to ensure it is a part of every conversation on diversity, to listen to the stories of those of us with disabilities and to speak out when people with disabilities face stigma or discrimination.”

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