Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Personal · Recovery · Social Justice

How You Can Help People with Invisible Disabilities on Public Transportation

Not all disabilities are visible, which means that sometimes, people with disabilities look perfectly healthy on the outside. “Invisible disabilities” actually count for 96% of all disabilities. This seems kind of mind-blowing if you don’t have experience with invisible disabilities, either personal or from a loved one. This is because we are taught from a young age that all people with disabilities use canes, wheelchairs, and other mobility devices to assist them in their daily activities.

While there certainly is a significant population of people around the world who use mobility devices (go you, you badasses!), there is an even larger population that doesn’t. One of the reasons that some don’t use the equipment they might want or need is because of the shame that accompanies ableism. Others, without the knowledge of invisible disabilities, can accidentally or intentionally shame someone for using a mobility device because they look quite healthy on the outside. That shame can become self-starting over time, what’s called internalized ableism.

I’ve had many low-energy, high-pain moments during which I’ve needed to sit instead of stand for a while or even have someone push me in a wheelchair to get somewhere. Because I’m lucky enough to have (decently) functioning limbs, when I stand back up or start walking, it can get… Awkward. The looks I get as I do this range from the angry “What the heck is a healthy person doing in a wheelchair?” to the strangely awed “I just saw God for the first time.” 

These onlookers likely don’t understand:
1. Not everyone who uses a wheelchair has no use at all of their legs.
2. Disability isn’t a black and white/binary/all or nothing issue.
3. Someone who is disabled on one day can look totally “normal” the next.
It’s totally okay not to know things, but here’s a chance to understand more if you are an able-bodied person who doesn’t want to be in the dark about this issue or if you are a person with an invisible disability who struggles to ask for the help you need.

Some basic tips for able-bodied people (click “able-bodied” if you want a definition):

  • Understand that you are privileged in ways you can’t fully comprehend (but that doesn’t mean that disabled people want pity or hate their lives because of their disability).
  • Understand that people use wheelchairs for many, many different reasons, so try not to look shocked or disgusted if someone stands up after using one. Chances are pretty astounding that they’re not faking it just so they can sit down. (Trust me, it’s not glamorous or enviable.)
  • Certain seats on public transportation say “priority seats for people with disabilities/children/who are pregnant,” so please try to take a different seat if you can, just in case someone with an invisible disability hasn’t yet gathered up the immense courage necessary to look into a stranger’s eyes and say “Hi, I need this seat because (x, y, z).” This is the same reason for which you should not block an otherwise open seat with your bags or take up more than one seat by stretching out unnecessarily.
  • Give up your seat when asked, without questions, unless you are having a truly horrible health day (like if you have the flu).
  • Give the right of way to someone using a mobility device or who looks like they are having trouble walking or moving.
  • Assume the best of others. Always remember this: everyone is trying their best. Their best is different from yours, but that does not invalidate it. They deserve respect.

Some basic tips for people with invisible disabilities:

  • You have the right to ask someone to give up their seat for you.
    [image description: A cartoon drawing of a person standing next to a seat on a train that is marked off for people who need it the most].
    Approach someone who looks healthier than you (try not to ask someone with a mobility device or who looks sick/exhausted/overwhelmed to move, as there will always be other people to ask – we have to bond together here!). Say something to the effect of, “Hi, I have a chronic pain disorder – may I take your seat?” Show gratitude, whether in words or facial expressions, to people who move for you. Some people will be jerks and not move. That’s okay. You can find someone else, someone kind, and ask again. This is a hard thing to do because it requires immense courage, but you will get better with practice. I promise.
  • You have the right to ask for any assistance you need from people who work for the transportation authority. They may give you the side-eye at first, and ask you some silly question like, “Is the assistance for your grandparent?” But hold out for hope because their job is to help you. I promise.
  • You have the right to ask for help from anyone who passes you if you are alone and carrying bags that are too heavy for you to carry without pain. They have the right to say no, but keep asking others. Your hopes will get answered. I promise.
  • You don’t have to educate anyone about the fact while they are lucky not to understand you completely, you do need the seat more than they do, but if you have the energy and patience, it helps make the world a better and more understanding place. I promise.
  • You have the right to get frustrated if people don’t understand you, believe you, or give you respect. While we would always love to be kind educators to the world, bringing to the public the crucial enlightenment that we have had to learn through immense pain and fatigue of the body, we are human. You are allowed to get mad. You are allowed to be upset. You are allowed to be frustrated. You are allowed to complain. But know that others will hear your message more if you are able to realize that they are just human as well. They don’t know what you go through on a daily basis and that makes them incredibly lucky, but still uneducated, and this is a chance to make one more person in the world knowledgable of invisible disabilities. It’s okay if you can’t reach them; all you can do is try your best. Their comments and responses have nothing to do with you and everything to do with their past experiences and knowledge, so let them slide off your back. I know that this is so much easier said than done, but it gets easier with practice. I promise.
  • Always remember this: you are worthy of respect and others’ belief, but your worth as a person does not come from others, from being able-bodied, or being believed. Your worth comes from being a human being. You are worthy simply because you are you. I promise.
  • The cool thing is that there are programs coming out all the time to honor your needs and educate people about invisible disabilities. Keep on the lookout for them!

TL;DR: Some days, people with invisible disabilities feel well enough to go without any special accommodations. For example, some days, I can hike!

[image description: me in exercise attire atop the Chichen Itza Pyramid in Mexico, which I climbed up on a day that I felt great].
Some days, however, are days when I need extra assistance because I have lower energy and higher pain. And that’s okay too. I’m still a person who deserves respect on those days. Not all disabilities are visible, but that doesn’t mean we deserve to feel invisible when we ask for help.

[image description: me and two friends on a day when I needed to be pushed in a wheelchair in order to be able to keep up with my peers].

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