Breaking the Silence: Invisible Illnesses Pt. 2: Discrimination

By Nicole Beaver

She wasn’t sure what to do. Australian woman Justine Van Den Borne was faced with the message a passive-aggressive individual left on her windshield. It read, “did you forget your wheelchair?!?!?”

Justine has Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord). The disease attacks myelin, the protective covering of the nerves, causing inflammation that is often damaging the myelin. Myelin is necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses through nerve fibres. If damage to myelin is slight, nerve impulses travel with minor interruptions; however, if damage is substantial and scar tissue replaces the myelin, nerve impulses may be completely disrupted, and the nerve fibres themselves can be damaged. From the outside, it can appear as nothing is wrong. But with impairment in the form of extreme fatigue, impaired sensation, and vision problems, it is no wonder why she needed that spot.

Blue Badge Insurance is situated in Australia, and their 2017 online article titled “People with Invisible Disabilities Face Harassment” goes over this. Additionally, the article covers the prejudice, discrimination, or abuse individuals afflicted by invisible illnesses may suffer. They covered what happened to the aforementioned Van Den Borne but also cite that Tasmanian man Steven Maksimovic reported being harassed six times over a three-month period for using his Disability Parking Permit in and around Hobart. Some of these confrontations caused distress to Maksimovic’s six-year-old son who witnessed the events. The website adds that these are “extreme cases,” but they also state that “people with invisible disabilities often face more subtle forms of discrimination when parking […] which might include being stared at, or hearing people make rude comments about them under their breath.”

Indeed, high-income countries have gotten used to the idea of a “disabled person” being one that is visibly paralyzed and in a wheelchair, unable to move anything past their waist or neck. We, as a society, often frown upon those who selfishly and, most times, illegally take a handicapped parking spot. We stand up to people who mock individuals who are “obviously” disabled. But invisible illnesses? To society, they appear mostly able-bodied and often are the victims of misplaced justice. Or worse, they’re discredited completely.

So why do some of us feel the need to prove someone wrong at the expense of their day? Psychology Today’s article, “Why Is It So Important to Be Right?” written by Dr. Mel Schwartz goes over the process behind this. As a marriage counselor, Dr. Schwartz has seen his fair share of arguments in which people have often wanted to be right. He points out that this need to be right is often seen in high income countries. Schwartz states that “[t]he ego may be shaped by other influences such as being honored, respected or altruistic. In first world cultures the drive to be right advances one in the competitive race. In the desire to get ahead this is utilized as a core value.” He even suggests that this way of thinking is damaging our psyches, “[ruining] our relationships, [derailing] our mindfulness, and [eroding] our natural instinct to learn.” No one wants to be humiliated or embarrassed. Most of us do have egos that crave the high we receive when proven to be righteous over another. When we succeed at something, according to The Medium’s blog article “How to Trigger the Brain Chemicals That Make You Happy,” our brains release dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. The brain only releases “happy chemicals” in limited bursts for specific aims. It cannot function properly when it releases them all the time! This is why, when we do something right, we receive instant gratification. Of course, we can become “junkies” reliant on this sensation and seek the activities that deliver it. Some of us become addicted to video games, sugar, sex, or something else that triggers the “happy chemicals.” Some of us are compelled to enact justice if we think someone is taking advantage of a designated parking spot or using a wheelchair when they’re not supposed to, which is why some may feel inclined to step in and correct a perceived wrong.

Are we truly driven by our nature? Not entirely. Though people can be resistant to being proved wrong, learning from mistakes is a key priority in how we learn about and operate the world. Once we recognize that invisible illnesses exist and familiarize ourselves with some of the diseases/disabilities, it’s better to give people the benefit of the doubt, even if we think they’re taking advantage of a situation. Now, if you absolutely know someone is using a handicapped parking spot or taking advantage of something that’s designed for the disabled, you should intervene. However, that’s not always the case. It’s really no one’s business to ask “what’s wrong with you?” or “what disease/disability do you have?” It’s actually quite rude to make it your business.

At best, leave it be. At worst, I don’t blame you for intervening. I’d sooner do the same! But keep in mind that not all illnesses or disabilities are visible. Sometimes, leaving someone alone is the best way to make their day a little better.

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