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Talking About Invisible Disabilities: Mindfulness as a Community

October 28, 2022 / Invisible Disabilities

A brown-skinned college-age woman with long curly hair looks off to the right as she stands with other college-age people at an outdoor event

By AACs Writing Intern Angela Lika

Navigating your space as a disabled person is hard enough, but what should you do when your disability or accommodation causes distress for another disabled person? In this third part of my invisible disability series, I want to highlight how our disabilities can create conflicts with each other. My focus with this topic will include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and stimming among neurodivergent people.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series.

When Disabilities Conflict

Another challenge that comes with invisible disabilities is feeling as if you’re imposing or asking too much from your peers.

I recently came across a review from a restaurant where a customer said the loud and sudden noises coming from the kitchen triggered symptoms of their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As I was reading this review, I was reminded of how our environment can accidentally create these types of problems for us. PTSD is a personal experience for many individuals, and the cues that trigger your symptoms can vary widely. Since PTSD is different for everyone, it’s hard to know when your own behavior can possibly become an obstacle for someone else.

Many people would argue that it should be expected that a restaurant may become crowded during certain hours and the employees in the kitchen might be noisy while trying to do their jobs.

Still, how do we navigate these kinds of scenarios?

If I were this customer, I would bring items that curb my sensory issues, like headphones made to silence or dull noise—but what if I left my headphones at home? How do I ask for accommodations without seeming rude or exposing private details about myself?

It’s also worth noting that disabilities don’t exist in a vacuum. They are something that you carry with you and have nowhere comfortable to set them aside.

For example, if you’re experiencing symptoms of your disability and you’re out with family or friends, how do you put your health and comfort first without “ruining” the outing for everyone else? Keeping others in mind becomes another problem because you may start to see yourself as lesser and think that it might be better if you stayed away.

Trying to accommodate for your invisible disability can feel impossible when you can’t predict what your environment will throw your way.

It’s easy to avoid a construction site when you’re aware of the sudden and loud noises. It’s harder to predict that these triggers can occur when you’re celebrating a birthday in a restaurant or walking at the park.

Why Self-Advocacy Feels Difficult

Even though your environment can play a huge factor, sometimes your triggers can appear because of another person.

For example, you don’t like loud noises, so you skip the restaurant outing and decide to celebrate your birthday at home instead. Family and friends come over, but one person in particular stims by creating loud, clapping noises with their hands.

Everyone else might be used to this behavior of stimming, but now you start to feel uneasy and at a loss for words.

Do you express your discomfort with another person’s symptom that, in turn, creates comfort for them? Or do you just let the uncomfortable and guilty feelings overtake you while staying quiet and hoping the noises stop soon enough?

As I mentioned in my previous post, many neurodivergent individuals stim as a way to regulate and cope with their own symptoms. Some people can stim quietly and discreetly, while others need a space to create movement and sound.

Which person in this scenario should comply? Who gets the final say?

It’s topics like this that cause a lot of dead ends for me. It’s genuinely difficult to determine the best way to settle these situations. It feels even worse when it seems as though we’re weighing discomfort on a scale and choosing the winner based on who suffers more.

I don’t want any disabled person to suffer for the sake of another person’s well-being, but I also understand deeply why we bargain with ourselves and try to minimize—or even erase—our own accommodations.

Since many of us have experiences with a lack of accommodations, we often choose to mask and try to become the nondisabled person in that moment. Instead of making another disabled person feel ashamed or guilty for their actions, we try to pass as nondisabled in order to avoid conflict between our disabilities.

The connections we have with our friends and family can shape how we reason with ourselves, too. Sometimes we mask simply because we want to hang out and feel included with the people we enjoy being around. In these cases, negotiating your disability might open doors to better conversations about how you share space with the people you value in your life, especially if they’re disabled as well.

Still, when talking about these issues, I think it’s important to remember our own autonomy. We know ourselves best, so we should also know our limits as well.

If we can recognize our triggers, we can also take the precautions to make different plans for when we eventually face a scenario that feels like we can’t escape. This plan can feel impossible when we’re in a public space or trying to negotiate with another person, but we also can’t afford to judge people in our own community harshly. One responsibility of being in a community is showing compassion and understanding in the face of adversity.

It's alright to step back from certain scenarios and give yourself the space to recharge and recollect yourself. Although I don’t have a concrete answer for our conflicts, we should recognize it’s common to feel confused or upset by situations we can’t predict or times when it feels like we have to choose between our own needs and people we care about.

Openly talking about these experiences can help spark conversations and better strategies for all of us, so we shouldn’t shy away from highlighting these conflicts either.

Angela Lika is a B.A. student at The Ohio State University who writes professionally. Angela’s areas of interest include literature, video games and disability studies—specifically combining all three and analyzing them together.