People with disabilities remain an invisible class in America. While you might notice someone in a wheelchair, millions of others walk around with hidden pain and untreated conditions that significantly impact their quality of life.
A little empathy can go far in helping members of this class feel less alone in their plight. When we understand each other’s struggles, we can collectively do a better job of uplifting each other. Here are five things you might not know if you are non-disabled — but should.
1. How Isolating Illness Can Be
Feeling lonely can decrease your lifespan by up to 26%, and people with disabilities may already face lowered life expectancy. The compound effect can have tragic consequences. However, people with chronic illnesses often find even their close friends and family keep their distance because they don’t know what to say, making the sick person feel even more alone.
Even if you have a healthy support system, you can still feel desperately lonely when others don’t understand your experience. That well-intended suggestion to “just drink more water” sounds an awful lot like, “clearly, it’s your fault that you’re sick because you don’t take care of yourself” to someone who has already drastically modified everything they consume to manage their condition more effectively.
If you are a non-disabled person, please keep reaching out to those you love. Invite them to events, even if you expect them to decline for health reasons. It’s often enough to know that you still care. Cage advice as a question — have you tried? — instead of playing amateur Dr. House.
2. How Daily Activities Can Challenge You
Non-disabled people might not leap out of bed with a smile and a flurry of helpful songbirds like something out of “Snow White.” However, they generally don’t have to check in with their body before they review their daily to-do list.
Christine Miseradino wrote a powerful blog piece where she compared the energy levels people with chronic pain have to so many spoons. As a non-disabled person, you start the day without having to count your drawer — you take it for granted that you will have enough energy for each daily task.
When you have chronic pain, even getting showered and dressed can exhaust half of your daily “spoon” supply. You have to carefully choose which activities merit your limited reserves, a balancing act that would challenge the most adept tightrope walker.
3. How Challenging It Is to Maintain Your Productivity Despite Pain
Productivity experts are full of fun advice. Unfortunately, most of it is tailored for non-disabled people.
Yes, tricks like getting dressed for the office even when you work at home might help you adjust your mindset. However, heeding this advice could backfire if doing so only adds to your already distracting pain levels. So could heeding the canard to work at a standard desk — sometimes, you get more done from bed when you are disabled. Please don’t judge.
4. How Many Barriers You Face Every Day
When you apply to college as a non-disabled person, you probably consider factors like cost and scholarship availability when deciding where to go. You likely never wonder if you can’t get your physical therapy equipment in your dorm room or whether you’ll have to navigate a wheelchair over rough cobblestones.
Even things like flying can become troublesome if you aren’t neurotypical. People with certain head injuries can find the change in barometric pressure excruciating. However, trying to explain to your boss why you can’t go on that cross-continental business trip without sounding like a wimp who can’t handle a headache is sometimes harder to bear than the pain itself.
5. How Expensive It Is to Have a Chronic Illness in America
A huge disconnect in the whole single-payer health care debate revolves around the idea that you’re golden if you have insurance coverage. If you have a disability in America, you know that nothing could be further from the truth.
It isn’t unusual to pay well over $300 a month for coverage for one person — a family can cost a thousand or more. However, even if you can foot the premiums, you may need to shell out another $8,500 before meeting your out-of-pocket max. Even after all of that, you may still incur copays for certain specialist services or prescription drugs, depending on your plan. As a result, you may find yourself paying well over $10,000 a year merely to stay alive.
That’s money that you don’t have to pad your emergency fund, save to buy a home, have a baby, or even take a well-deserved vacation — and you must pay it every single year, year after year when you have a chronic illness. You don’t get off with a single pricey bill like non-disabled folks whose broken arm eventually heals. Even if you make a respectable hourly salary, you can quickly fall behind, and any unexpected expense can devastate you.
The result is often condemnation to a lifetime of poverty for folks who are already among society’s most vulnerable. Before you tell your friend with Type 1 diabetes to look on the bright side, please consider the financial stress they might face and how insensitive such casual advice can sound to someone drowning in medical debt.
Please Try to Understand These 5 Things If You Are Able-Bodied
Unless you know or love someone with a disability, you might remain blissfully unaware of the struggles those with such conditions face. Now that you understand these five things, please use your knowledge to deepen your empathy.
Kara Reynolds is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Momish Magazine. Bio mom of two kiddos & stepmom of two kiddos – normalizing blended families is her ish. She enjoys peeing alone, pancakes, and pinot noir.
Image courtesy of Alex Green.