Helping Ourselves and Others Cope With Invisible Disabilities

Many of us struggle with or are close to someone who struggles with invisible disabilities. Invisible disabilities come in many forms.  From depression and anxiety to severe allergies, from intellectual limitations to autoimmune diseases, these disorders exist all around us. An invisible disability, whether physical, mental or neurological, is one that is not obvious at first glance. They are hidden from our view. There is no outward sign that fits our culture’s preconceived ideas of what defines a disability. An invisible disability causes limitations with movements, senses or activities, or creates other challenges that can make ordinary life more difficult. Because of the invisible nature, people that struggle with these are most often judged, misunderstood and marginalized. Some common examples include: Psychiatric disorders (depression, PTSD, bi-polar, schizophrenia); Intellectual limitations (Learning Disabilities, low IQ, Traumatic Brain Injury); Physical (Narcolepsy, Epilepsy, Chronic Pain)

HOW do we help those we love cope with these disorders?

For me it’s about these three things—

Awareness. Understanding. Acceptance.

 1) Awareness is the first step to understanding.

·        Learn all you can about the disability.  To be able to help someone with an invisible disability, it is important to seek knowledge about their disability—what are you dealing with? What is the scope of limitations or challenges they endure? What treatments or medications are available to them? Where and how can their boundaries be challenged or pushed? For example, a person with allergies can possibly pre-medicate if they need to be somewhere where a dog is present.  But a person with toxic sensitivities does not have an option.  And while the potential of a person with limited intellectual capacity can be maximized, pushing for more than this can cause frustration and a sense of defeat. Having said all that, more than anything else, we need to allow for the possibility that we may not know everything about a person or what they are struggling with.
    2) Understanding will allow us to make a difference.

·      Realize what you have in common.  People with invisible disabilities want the same things you want.
o   To be seen and heard. To have a voice.
o   To be part of something bigger than themselves and to add value to this world in the form of family, friendships, workplace, relationships
Most of all, they want to be seen for who they are, not by what they can or cannot do.

·       Encourage them to aspire to and create the broadest life possible.  Whether this entails medication, special training, or environmental assistance, make certain that you reach for everything you can to help provide the fullest life possible. Let go of what you “think” they should aspire to and need to be happy. Challenge the cultural ideals of “normal.”

·       Understand and help overcome frustrations.  The anxiety-ridden friend who cannot commit to a social gathering may be annoying.  The person with environmental allergies who asks what chemicals you use before they come over may seem out of line. The relative with bi-polar disorder who inhibits conversation at the dinner table may seem unbearable. But know that for all your frustration with them, their frustration with themselves is far greater.  Showing understanding while letting them know they are valued goes a long way in alleviating their frustrations—and   yours.

3) Acceptance is the most powerful gift we can give.

·        Give the gifts of acceptance and love.  We all want to feel relevant. We all want to feel we have a place in the world, and in the hearts and minds of others. But when we have an invisible disability, these feelings can be elusive.  By providing unconditional acceptance and love, we turn the elusive into reality.

HOW can we put this awareness, understanding and acceptance into daily practice?

The SEE Approach

EVERYDAY, all of us encounter people in different situations and form judgments right away, without all the facts. It is human nature. Often, there is more to the story than what we see at first glance. I have developed a simple formula or acronym to challenge myself to approach people I encounter in a different way. I call it the SEE approach.

o   Stop.  Pause. Take a breath, a beat, a moment, before you do or say something impatient or hurtful, take a moment to consider.
o   Evaluate: Ask questions. Is there impairment? Could there be more than what I see on the surface?
o   Empathize: Put yourself in their shoes. Give compassion.




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