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Talking About Invisible Disabilities: Symptoms and Accommodations

November 18, 2022 / Invisible Disabilities

A woman works at a computer screen in a dim room.

By AACs Writing Intern Angela Lika

For my fourth blog in this series, I’ll discuss more disabilities with symptoms we might overlook. Additionally, I’ll provide insight on what rights you have regarding accommodations and how to start asking for services or alternatives that could help you.

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this blog series.

Symptoms We Can’t See

As I’ve discussed, much of our typical understanding of disability is rooted in visual cues.

For many people, these visual cues don’t bear the full weight of how difficult it can be to navigate their surroundings or complete daily tasks. What makes matters worse is when your symptoms cause others to blame a different condition (such as mental health) to explain your behavior and reactions.

For example, Lyme disease comes with an array of symptoms that vary in longevity and severity. Fatigue, nerve damage, memory loss and chest pain are just a few of the ways this disease can change a person’s life.

However, these symptoms can be hard to explain or prove. When you try to reach out for help, doctors can miss the real issue and chalk your symptoms up to depression (low energy) or anxiety (chest pain and irregular heartbeat).

Even if you do get the correct diagnosis, how do you go about your daily activities when you need to set aside a significant amount of time for recovery and accommodations?

Additionally, people will often comment on your physical appearance and say that you look fine when you’re actually in a state of pain and exhaustion. This experience ties into how we sometimes feel the need to suppress our own needs because we’d rather avoid the challenges of requesting accommodations. Staying quiet feels like the “easier” option.

Migraines are another example. Migraines can cause intense head pain, nausea and sensitivity to light or sound. Since many people have experienced them, some might not view this condition under the lens of disability. However, the severity and longevity can be everchanging and sometimes result in pain that can make it very difficult to function from day to day.

When living with a disability, some people might feel as if the unpredictable nature of their symptoms is a burden to others. There might be a feeling of shame when asking for “too many” accommodations. A lot of disabled people can struggle with the issue of not wanting to “push their luck.”

Often, it can be a gamble whether nondisabled people listen to your experiences and provide the accommodations you ask for. When the answer is yes, you can feel confident and relieved.

However, you might fall into a mindset where you don’t want your disability to overstay its welcome. Asking for accommodations the first time feels fine, but asking over and over again can make some disabled people feel anxious about how much their nondisabled peers will “tolerate” or “put up” with their disability.

Aside from the emotional turmoil we face, another challenge comes from how to advocate for ourselves when our symptoms are happening in real time.

I would suggest that knowing your limits and how your body reacts to your disability is a big part of dealing with symptoms that require accommodations. However, I do understand the necessity you might feel to blend in with your nondisabled peers. Acknowledging you have limits that might be different from the people around you can cause insecurity, and so you hide your disability away instead of revealing it to others.

Still, it’s important to remember that you have the right to ask for reasonable accommodations or alternatives in your workplace environment.

Although wanting to avoid possible rejection or ridicule is valid, any instance of actual discrimination is unacceptable in your workplace. Knowing when and how to advocate for yourself can be a huge task that seems impossible to start, but familiarizing yourself with the process can make it feel more do-able and less scary.

Asking for Accommodations

Although discussing accommodations can be daunting, it’s important to remember that your health and safety are important. A huge factor when coming forward about your disability is whether the people around you see your symptoms as valid and believable or whether your accommodations are “reasonable” enough.

If you do decide to come forward and ask for accommodations, there are steps and resources that you can access.

Lots of nondisabled people might assume that being disabled automatically means that you know everything about workplace rights or disability services, but that’s often not the case. Many disabled people aren’t sure how they’re protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Social Security Administration’s Job Accommodation Network is a good place to learn more about how to request an accommodation at work. You can also read up on some of the most common issues people have with requesting accommodations and ADA compliance.

If you’re in a situation where you feel as if your request for an accommodation was denied due to discrimination or ableism, you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and learn how to file charges of employment discrimination. If you’re specifically in Ohio, you can also file a charge with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

Knowing your rights is an important tool as a disabled person because you may find yourself in a situation where people try to take advantage or intimidate you into not receiving the accommodations you deserve.

Many barriers exist for disabled people when trying to advocate for accommodations, but sharing our experiences, resources and knowledge can help anyone new to this process become more comfortable in making their voice heard.

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.