“You don’t look disabled”

Elderly woman suffers from muscular pains
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Why it’s time to pick up the slack and support students with invisible disabilities.

“Because they’re not obvious to spot, invisible disabilities may be overlooked and misunderstood,” The Rick Hanson Foundation states. “And unfortunately, this can lead to discrimination or exclusion of those with an invisible disability.”

VIU supports and accommodates students with invisible disabilities in many ways, but a lack of knowledge on the effects of invisible disabilities, and other nuanced biases, pose unique challenges for these students. Generally speaking, there is a severe lack of education on invisible disabilities and their necessary accommodations among instructors and other faculty at the school.

Invisible disabilities are essentially disabilities that are not easily, or not at all, seen by others. Examples include chronic health issues, learning impairments, and mental illnesses, which tend to impact daily living. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “disabilities” as “an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions.” WHO also notes that “disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon.”

This year, VIU has over 800 students registered with Disability Services. Denise Hook, Access Specialist with Disability Services, says that students’ education-related barriers are determined individually and are generally dependant on their disability. However, Hook says that a “lack of understanding and awareness of what invisible disabilities really entail and how they affect people” also tend to impact students with invisible disabilities.

According to a VIU’s Disability Awareness Club representative, who wished to remain anonymous, the overall acceptance of disabilities is not consistent department-to-department. They explained that many students benefit from the support and advocacy of the specialists in the Disability Services office. “Sometimes people just don’t get it; they don’t understand, and that’s why we have Disability Services on-campus,” the representative says. “[The Disability Service] lobbies for change in the classroom.”

Hook also noted that certain departments of the University tend to be more proactive about accommodating disabled students. She says instructors of the less proactive departments don’t necessarily have a lack of compassion for disabled students, but rather “instructors often don’t have that awareness of, or experience with, people with disabilities, so they don’t understand disabilities.” Ultimately, a lack of understanding leads to a lack of support for students with invisible disabilities.

Hook explained there are still some people at the University who carry the notion that disability accommodations are equivalent to cheating in the classroom. “It’s a broad misunderstanding and there needs to be more education so people can understand that it’s just levelling the playing field and removing barriers,” she says.

James Bowen, former student advocate and current executive director of VIU’s Students’ Union, says he supports working disability education into new professor orientations, as he infers it would be difficult to make major changes in terms of creating a mandatory disability information session for all professors of the university.

Yet, Hook says there is already an opportunity for Disability Services to speak to new instructors at their orientations, and that the more difficult instructors to reach with disability education, are the ones already employed at the University. She explains her office has tried multiple avenues for “getting the message out” to professors, but have had little success. For example, workshops held to educate professors on the needs of disabled students “often aren’t well-attended,” Hook says. She says mandatory information sessions at the start of each school year would be ideal, in terms of educating professors on disabilities and informing them of appropriate accommodations for disabled students.

These under-attended information sessions are just one of the ways Disability Services continues to go above and beyond in their support and advocacy for disabled students on campus. Their job starts in their office, where they work in various ways to provide one-on-one support to students, but they branch further by reaching out to others at the University in hopes of increasing the support and safety of the students they serve.

Disability Services hosted a celebration for International Day of Persons with Disabilities at VIU in December with an accompanying workshop by the Canadian Mental Health Association, and a film screening of Touch of the Light. With the theme of invisible disabilities, the fair served to raise awareness of this type of disability among students.

By holding this type of event on-campus, Disability Services is publicly acknowledging that some VIU students are facing each day with unseen and sometimes silent illnesses. This is another step towards creating a safe learning space on campus for all students. There are still many small actions that would result in positive impact, which both university professors and students should take part in to ensure safe learning environments. Basic disability education, acknowledgement/consideration of students with invisible disabilities, and simply believing students who say they’re ill are some key first steps to making VIU a safer learning space for students with invisible disabilities.

For more information on invisible disabilities, visit InvisibleDisabilities.org. For more information on VIU’s Disability Services, head to viu.ca/disabilityservices.