Being “seen” is not easier. It’s different.

i wish that when people talked about the experience of having disabilities which many other folks don’t perceive right away or at all (often called “invisible disabilities”), that they would remember that living some kind of more-easily-identifiable-stereotyped-disability-experience (“visible disabilities”) is not, like, a cake walk or something.

There’s is so. much. shit. that happens when you have disabilities which others can’t generally and/or immediately perceive or can’t seem to “label” based in their limited grasp or experience of disability (a situation created and maintained by ableism and other intersecting systems of oppression, not by disabled folks who get perceived as such). i’ve lived with physical disabilities which others couldn’t immediately perceive, and the criticism, speculation and disbelief from both within and without disability community were painful. There are ways that being “seen” is equated to being “real”, and that has consequences on all disabled people. Being in disabled community spaces when your disabilities are not immediately apparent can mean being ostracized, not being believed, being treated as an intruder, being -ironically enough- invalid. It’s a painful experience which can make finding community and gaining access to resources, being believed and heard and understood really hard. It has a negative impact on individuals and entire groups of disabled folks, and it builds on ableism.

i get it, i do. i’ve experienced it and still do regarding some of / parts of my disabilities; for but one example, the mental health stuff i deal with. But i’d never suggest that because i can generally “pass” as a non-“serious” / “dangerous” / etc-mental-health-issue-having person, that life would be easier if people could see what was up for me, if people could see that i have certain kinds of mental health stuff going on. Because that would be an inaccurate oversimplification. Ask anyone who’s routinely harassed and assaulted by cops because of ableist(+) responses to their visibility as people with schizophrenia and/or who are autistic and/or have Tourettes, and/or who deal with audist responses to being Deaf or having other barriers to audio (for example at a public demonstration where cops are yelling commands and assume you’re just resisting arrest when you don’t actually hear what they’re saying, etc), or any number of other experiences. Not easier in the slightest. Different.

Talking about how everything is “so much easier!” when people just automatically know you’re physically disabled, how you don’t get a hassle on the bus when people see you’re “obviously” disabled (pro tip: i still get hassled), or how it’s so much easier to not have to explain why you can’t go to this or that event when people can see your disability (i still need to explain, if i get invited at all), or the assumed benefit of getting more sympathy when folks can see your disability, or OMG the “ease” of not having to worry about finding work (yeah…not actually beneficial or easy), or the presumed automatic access to disability communities (nope), and so on.

i find these conversations about all the “benefits” of visibility (most often without any acknowledgement at all of the bullshit that more often than not totally overrides any small benefit there may be in really specific contexts), i find those conversations painful and really difficult to engage in. There’s a reason for that, and it ain’t among the many presumed benefits of being “visible”. These kinds of comments actually mean something to someone like me who has and does live with some disabilities most people didn’t/don’t perceive and who also lives an experience of being identified as and treated as disabled every single place i go.

And let me tell you, with much respect and gimpy camaraderie, from someone who does live with visible disabilities:

It is not easier.

Sympathy is not a privilege.

Pity is not a community.

And visibility as a disabled person more often than not means










severe isolation,


no consent,

incarceration / institutionalization,

and more violence.

This. is. so. not. easier. It is different.

i’m not going to do ableisms’ dirty work for it and try to pry out where you have it “better” than me or vice versa, or compare or allow others to compare our experiences as though we are two sides of the same coin. We’re not. What we deal with is different, sometimes unbelievably different; and it’s also similar, sometimes strikingly so; and sometimes it’s overlapping. That’s ok. We don’t have to have the same experience of disability in order to be in solidarity with one another. But please stop telling me this visibility is easier.

i’m going to honour my experience and yours, talk about the differences, hold other disabled folks’ experience as their own thing, see what we can learn from each other, learn how we can support each other, even when it’s painful. We’re not the same, our experiences are not the same; mine as a visible gimp is not more important or more valid, and it sure as shit isn’t easier. It’s different, and i would love if more folks could just work with that, and could see how hard it is to hold my tongue every time these conversations come up, these often fleeting comments or quests for solidarity unintentionally at my expense; but that i do it because i know how fucking hard it is to live in an ableist world and to be struggling and just wanting SOMEone to get it, to acknowledge us. So please, acknowledge this? Acknowledge that we are not the same. Acknowledge that being seen as disabled means being treated as disabled and that when you live in an ableist society there are fucked up things that happen because of that; things maybe even other disabled folks can’t imagine. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean we can’t be in this together. Just the opposite. <3

5 thoughts on “Being “seen” is not easier. It’s different.

  1. This is excellent. As a part-time wheelchair user, I move in and out of the invisible and visible statuses fairly frequently, although there are some people who know me as “Goldifsh, who uses a wheelchair” and others who don’t associate a wheelchair with me at all. Like you say, it’s just different.

  2. I have a wheelchair user friend who recently used the term “invisible privilege” in a public forum. As someone with CFS I can’t express enough how hurtful it was to hear that term from someone without the lived experience. And, as you say, it works both ways. You’ve come at it from the other side, but you have it right, and I understand how you feel. Neither condition is a privilege. They are simply different types of disadvantage. People should stop considering the grass greener on the other side simply because they have experienced one type of disadvantage and not the other.

    • …though i wouldnt say ive come at it “from the other side”; ive come at it through a range of experiences, a range which includes having disabilities which people dont necessarily perceive. i know intimately what its like to have people make judgements based on a lack of awareness of my disabilities, whether before or after i developed ones which sighted people perceive. Ultimately, it all sucks, and the last thing i need or want is for more ableist bullshit to divide us. There are differences –at times really incredible differences– in the experience of being perceived as disabled and of not being perceived as disabled. i just happen to think we can talk about those very real differences without turning on one another.

  3. Pingback: this is why i talk about this stuff | building radical accessible communities everywhere

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