I still find it really difficult to identify as a disabled student. Just the other week, my boyfriend and I were late to a full seminar, meaning we had no other choice but to sit on the floor for an hour. “Should have got here earlier, motherfuckers!” a friend joked as he passed. I found the whole experience really uncomfortable, not only because it was my fault because we were late, but because of the nature of my disability means that I find very difficult to sit on the floor from prolonged periods of time. One word from me and we could have easily moved, but I was far too proud to draw attention to my condition, or rather, too ashamed.
Despite having cerebral palsy all my life, until now I’ve felt reluctant to ‘come out’ as disabled, unless it’s to house mates or potential partners, and only then because I felt like I was obliged to. I mean, why you would go out with someone like me, when you could be with someone ‘normal’? And because my condition is virtually undetectable to someone unfamiliar to the symptoms of CP (excessive tiredness, difficulty walking, lack of co-ordination), I’ve found it easier to deny myself any extra help, because I would rather suffer in secret and be judged ‘normal’ by society, (by which I mean being seen as able-bodied), rather than be exposed as a different, therefore weaker, person.
Do I look like a disabled student to you?
So, although my disability is primarily a physical one, that isn’t to say I also haven’t experienced the negative mental and emotional that having an ‘invisible illness’ often entails. I’m incredibly lucky to be in the position I am, as a cerebral palsy sufferer who can walk unaided, feed and dress myself, when many others with the same disability can’t. Yet, rather than being grateful of all the things I can do, I continue to beat myself up about the fact that I will always be physically inferior to many of my peers. In fact, I’d say that I punish myself about my condition more than anyone else ever could.
That’s why I’m so proud of the ‘Invisible Illnesses Campaign’ that’s being rolled out across campus this week. I hope that by sharing a brief account of my experience as a student affected by ‘invisible illness’ will demonstrate how common these conditions really are. It really is true that anyone you know could be suffering from a chronic illness, like me, or from an eating disorder, or mental illness. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m not always the person people may think I am, a happy-go-lucky girl with everything under control. There were times I thought I’d never be able to get over the shame of having a secret disability. This week, however, I’m not going to let fear and stigma define me, because having an ‘invisible illness’ is really nothing to be ashamed of.
By Zoe Alford