Michigan Engineering News

Cheri Johnson

Understanding invisible disabilities

Make a lasting impact on campus culture by taking the time to understand those with unseen challenges.


This article was written by Cheri Johnson.

Cheri Johnson
Cheri Johnson. Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

I want to talk about the disability portion of the University of Michigan Nondiscrimination Policy. This policy commits us, as U-M staff, to contribute to an environment of equal opportunity for all persons; where we do not discriminate on the basis of disability, among other categories. I joined the College’s Staff Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Culture Committee because of my personal interest in helping those with disabilities.

My story started with my daughter, who was born with chromosome 19 disorder. The doctors at Motts Children’s Hospital said she may never be able to feed herself. She is now 34 years old and surpassed all the limitations the doctors warned us about. She is physically fine and has no problem taking care of herself, but she does have invisible disabilities. She can’t read or write past the first grade level and has other learning disabilities. She works at a grocery store bagging groceries and she considers her contribution as helping the elderly carry out their groceries and giving them an encouraging word to make their day brighter. While my daughter’s skills aren’t best suited for university life, all levels of ability have a place of value in society.

Many people do not know what is considered an invisible disability. According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, “[An] invisible disability refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments. These are not always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes or always limit daily activities, range from mild challenges to severe limitations, and vary from person to person.” Their website also mentions that “someone who has a visible impairment or uses an assistive device such as a wheelchair, walker or cane can have an invisible disability. For example, whether or not a person utilizes an assistive device, if they are debilitated by such symptoms as described above, they live with invisible disabilities.”

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1997 there were 26 million Americans considered to have a severe disability and only 7 million of them used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.

I believe invisible disabilities can easily lead to discrimination and misunderstanding, probably discrimination we don’t even realize we have. We tend to form our opinions by what we see and then believe it as fact before we really get to know the individual or the situation. This situation is experienced frequently by those living with invisible disabilities. The IDA website gives a quote from Joni Eareckson Tada, the well-known author who became paralyzed from the shoulders down at the age of 18. She told someone living with debilitating fatigue, “People have such high expectations of folks like you [with invisible disabilities], like, ‘Come on, get your act together.’ But they have such low expectations of folks like me in wheelchairs, as though the thought is that we can’t do much.”

In another blog from Natascha Chtena, a doctoral student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, she talks about a student that struggled with dyslexia. The student said they felt “many professors were more willing to accommodate students with ‘tangible’ disabilities, such as those who are blind, deaf or use a wheelchair. Students with invisible conditions like learning disabilities, clinical depression or ADHD were often put on the pile of ‘boutique disabilities,’ i.e., outright dismissed or begrudgingly accommodated.”

As staff at U-M, we can make a huge difference in the culture of our campus and in the lives of those living with invisible disabilities. With a little accommodation, they can be excellent employees. And taking time to understand what each other might be dealing with and offering help and a smile can have a lasting impact. I know the impact that people like this have had on my daughter.

In closing, I’d like to quote a former president “I congratulate President Obama for taking some time today to remember the 19th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is no place in our society for prejudice of any kind, yet it was not that long ago when Americans with disabilities were often not given equal rights and opportunities. Whether the cause was ignorance or indifference, it was not acceptable. We can all take pride in how much the ADA has accomplished, which is evident every time you attend a sporting event, ride the subway, or go to work. Yet, there is always more to be done, which is why it’s good not only to celebrate our successes, but to look forward at what still must be done. As long as we never forget that every life is a miracle and each person has something to contribute, we will finish the job.” – Former President George H.W. Bush on the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – July 24 2009.