So you’re walking down a crowded sidewalk and coming towards you in the opposite direction is someone in a wheelchair. You recognize that the sidewalk isn’t wide enough for one of you to maneuver around the other so what do you do? You move unto the grass and yield the right of way to him. Why? Because you recognize that it is more difficult for him to maneuver unto the grass in a wheelchair. It’s why you give up your seat on the subway to a senior citizen or to a pregnant woman. As a society we recognize the importance of accommodating those with physical disabilities or certain needs (this is not to say that it has been fully institutionalized or that everyone is gracious). We recognize that it is not their fault: even though you and the person in the wheelchair have the same amount of claim to the sidewalk and nobody has the right of way, you yield it.
This “contract” rests on vision. We see someone in a wheelchair or with a cane or a baby. But what happens if someone in need of accommodations doesn’t have any physical signs of disability? This is one of things that people with mental disabilities struggle with. People can’t see their disability. In some senses an invisible disability can work to ones advantage. People won’t necessarily label or judge you on sight. You look “normal.” However, it also has negative consequences. People with mental disabilities need accommodations too. People with mental disabilities may suffer in that they are unable to draw the appropriate line between appropriate and inappropriate. They may be socially awkward. They may say “odd” things. They may have physical or verbal tics. They may be very fidgety or seem as unfocused. They may look like they are not paying attention or may seem disrespectful. If people don’t know that these are symptoms of or coping mechanisms in response to a disability they may judge you harshly. They think you are rude or obnoxious or WEIRD. Because they don’t see a disability they have no reason to give you the benefit of the doubt, to give you leeway, to give you that extra space on the sidewalk.
Even though I have been a victim of this miscommunication I have also been a perpetrator. I have judged people as weird or annoying only later to find out that they had a hidden disability. Its amazing though how once you find out that they have a disability they don’t really seem weird anyone. You understand where their odd behavior comes from. You know that it isn’t malicious or a reflection of a superiority complex etc. so you don’t really mind anymore. You take it in stride. You recognize that they need leeway too.
So what can be done? Well, if people were better able to recognize the symptoms and the manifestations of mental disabilities than they wouldn’t be hidden anymore! If you know that nose twitching and humming are symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome than you will be able to spot someone with Tourette’s. You won’t just think that someone who is twitching is on drugs or is weird. TOURETTE’S WILL NO LONGER BE HIDDEN! This can obviously only happen by teaching. If you teach people what to look for they will find it. If you teach children the difference between a large stomach and a pregnancy they will know to yield their seat and they wont just think, "wow, what a rude person asking for my seat…"
By: Andrew Lustig