I’ve recently come across more and more texts that question the distinction between visible and invisible disabilities. Perhaps we should talk about hidden disabilities instead of invisible ones? Perhaps it’s usually a case of other people ignoring the signs, rather than the signs not being there in the first place?
I say I come across more and more texts of this kind, but I have yet to properly read up on all the arguments. Nevertheless, there is clearly a difference – perhaps not in some future disability utopia but very much so in the society in which we presently live – between disabled folks who are immediately categorized as such by everyone they meet, and those of us who must come out of the closet again, and again, and again.
I was recently an invited speaker for an interdisciplinary workshop which dealt with psychosis. Some people there already knew me, and thus knew that I’m mad myself. I chatted during lunch with a PhD student who had a mental health condition themself, and freely talked about my own issues. During my talk and the following Q&A, I also think that I speak in a way that shows my lived experience – but no one who doesn’t know me already seems to notice this. (Perhaps this is what awesome colleague Joe Stramondo, quoting Cal Montgomery, means by “willfully ignoring” the signs?) Those people, the psychotics, are assumed to be out there. In here, we’re all scholars and scientists. We’re smart, rational people, and absolutely not mad!
One of the last talks featured two clinicians talking about crazy people and how easy it is to see when someone is completely bonkers and makes no sense, and how important it is not to burn yourself out by trying to understand people’s experiences, because there’s nothing there to understand, madpeople are just fundamentally incomprehensible. I noticed the PhD student squirming behind me. They’re still in a vulnerable position, and might think it’s too risky to come out. So here goes the senior philosopher with strong job security, sticking their neck out, taking one for the team!
“Actually, when I was in mental hospital myself, it was very important to me that someone else listened to me and made an effort to understand my experiences. I was lucky to have a husband who understood me, but researchers like Rosa Ritunnano, Giovanni Stanghellini and others have stressed that it’s really important that clinicians also try to do this. Btw, one of my problems was that I experienced myself as drifting sideways in two-dimensional time. If I had met you guys at the time, you would probably have written off all talk about time’s dimensions as mere word salad, just because you didn’t have those concepts, even though it connects to both pop-cultural stuff that husband and I are familiar with, and to the philosophical theories of David Lewis and Kadri Vihvelin.”
Cue visible embarrassment from the clinicians, and many audience members looking uncomfortable too. PhD student behind me radiating gratefulness. And I find myself enjoying the whole situation, a kind of angry and rebellious amusement. You thought you could safely say whatever you felt like about madpeople, so certain that none of those people were present, and here I go, bursting your little bubble. I hope you never feel safe like that again.