UK Disability History Month 2023 – “The Great Invisibility Game”

UK Disability History Month 2023 logo cover art

The theme for UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) 2023 is disability, childhood and youth.

In this blog, we hear from a colleague working in health and care in Humber and North Yorkshire around visibility for disabled people.

I work in health and care in Humber and North Yorkshire, I am a disabled person and I often turn invisible (I know, right? Magic!)

Invisibility is often cited as the superpower one might choose when sat around a dinner table, or in ‘getting to know you’ team building challenges… others choose ‘flying’ or ‘time travel’.

I consider many of my differences as superpowers but my ability to turn invisible sometimes feels more like a curse instead of a gift because it’s often not voluntary. Sometimes I’m made invisible by others and sometimes it’s a subconscious thing I do myself.

I’ve chosen to write about invisibility this UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) as it’s a common experience for many disabled people. 1 in 5 of the UK population are disabled and 80 per cent of those people have a hidden impairment or difference.

I am part of that 80 per cent most of the time, but as my impairments and differences can be variable, sometimes it’s very apparent. But a lot of the time it’s not, especially when working remotely, which I’m privileged to do.

What you see smiling back at you from your screen is often only a fraction of the bigger picture and quite often that suits me just fine.

Because sometimes, it just feels easier to be a bit invisible.

The Great Invisibility Game
Making parts of ourselves invisible is known as ‘masking’ and it’s not exclusive to disabled people – it’s common in our LGBT+ communities and in fact, we all do it to some extent.

Masking is like creating our own cloaking device. It’s a way of trying to hide our differences so people don’t pick us out for being who we truly are.

So we’ll ‘fit in’, ‘fly under the radar’ or ‘pass’.

Because sometimes it’s easier than having the ‘oh, I didn’t know you were disabled’ conversation.

“Camouflage costs energy. Cloaking impacts our wellbeing. Deciding it’s safer to be invisible is a ‘choice’ no one should feel they have to make.”

Not every disabled person has the privilege of being able to mask, but for those of us with hidden impairments or differences, it can feel as if it’s almost expected of us. In this sense, it often doesn’t really feel like a choice but more of a survival mechanism. And it can be really exhausting.

60 per cent of non-disabled people say they actively avoid disabled people as they ‘don’t know how to behave around them’. So is it any wonder that there’s an unspoken pressure to ‘fit in’ with the non-disabled majority?

Heavy is the head that wears a mask
Masking is an interesting conundrum because when we do mask, we often feel more seen by non-disabled people – we’re not ‘clocked’ as different. We’re considered ‘part of the majority’ almost subconsciously, ‘one of the gang’.

But every time a disabled person (or any minoritised person) who is able to mask does so, we diminish ourselves.

Camouflage costs energy. Cloaking impacts our wellbeing. Deciding it’s safer to be invisible is a ‘choice’ no one should feel they have to make.

The interesting thing here is that it’s not always our interactions with our colleagues that trigger that masking mechanism. I am incredibly lucky to have an inclusive and supportive team where I feel safe to be myself, but even then, my mask slips into place sometimes.

Quite often, it’s our own worries about how we’ll be judged based on what we see and know of the wider world and our previous experiences. It can be a pre-emptive thing, quite often an unconscious thing.

Because we do live in an ableist society – this means our world is built in favour of non-disabled people. Rather than being built inclusively for everyone as a starting point, we expect disabled people to ask for what they need – so we start from a place of a deficit.

Sorry to be a bother…
How many times have you walked into a doctor’s appointment and said: “sorry to be a bother…”? As a disabled person, we experience that feeling a lot (often every day). Having to ask for something puts us at a disadvantage compared to those who don’t need to. And being at a disadvantage can make you feel invisible, unworthy, bothersome or just a nuisance.

But when we look deeper, what is bothersome is that it is still incredibly common to put that burden onto disabled people. Really, that is the real nuisance instead of simply making things inclusive from the get-go.

70 per cent of people accessing NHS services alone are disabled people. We are literally everywhere, but for those with hidden differences or impairments, we’re also nowhere. Unless we have the courage to lift our invisibility cloaks and fight the good fight (when sometimes we just want a good cup of tea and a rest).

And on those days where we don’t have the energy to point out how we can be included, then with no magic whatsoever, we become invisible because we’re excluded as a default. Our voices aren’t heard. Our skills, knowledge and expertise become irrelevant, because we’re too tired to navigate unnecessary barriers.

Invisibility privilege?
I mention that masking is a privilege because many of our disabled colleagues do not have this option. Some of our differences or impairments are visible to others and this presents different experiences.

The disabled community is hugely diverse in our experiences, our needs; in how we move through life. Some of us do not have the option of masking for self-preservation; the involuntary magic of invisibility missing from the ‘spell book of survival’ for some.

Similarly, additional barriers can be found as our identities intersect – the experiences of a disabled person of colour will be different to mine, for example.

We are all of us, every single one of us, remarkably different, whether we are disabled or non-disabled people.

One size fits none
I now describe myself as a disabled person. I do my absolute best to recognise when my subconscious mind is dusting off my mask and I attempt to not use it. But it’s a lifelong journey and it is dependent on so many factors. I am not afraid to say I’ve not cracked it yet, but it’s something I’ll never stop working on.

This UK Disability History Month, I’d like to believe we are working towards a health and care system where difference is valued. Where ‘one size fits all’ is actively rejected as a blanket approach and seen for the enabler of ableism it often is.

I’d like to thank those who have shown me compassion and accepted me for my full, authentic self, with all my quirks and ‘superpowers’. I’d like to think that if there’s anywhere where we can work together to tackle what are big issues, difficult questions and challenges as old as time, it’s here.

It’s here in Humber and North Yorkshire, it’s here in health and care. Because disabled people are here to stay, there’s more of us than you might think and, invisibility prowess aside, when we work as one inclusive system, we’re magic (no spell book required).