Disabling invisibilities

InvisAbilities aims to support students with invisible disabilities on campus

Julie Harmgardt
Image by: Justin Tang
Julie Harmgardt

Queen’s InvisAbilities is trying to promote the message that not all disabilities are obvious with a week-long awareness campaign from March 13 to 19.

Although there’s no formal definition for invisible disabilities, Julie Harmgardt, chair of Queen’s InvisAbilities, said they refer to chronic illnesses that aren’t obvious to people, including conditions like arthritis, chronic migraines and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Harmgardt, ArtSci ’12, said a lot of students on campus suffer from invisible disabilities and beyond raising awareness about these issues, her organization also provides support for these students. Through a buddy program that pairs together students with the same illnesses, and through activities like invisible illness yoga, InvisAbilities aims to create a supportive community on campus for those suffering these conditions.

“When you mention ‘disability’ [people] think ‘visible disabilities,’ which can be frustrating for someone suffering from something invisible,” Harmgardt said, adding that students suffering invisible disabilities often have a hard time getting accommodations from their professors and can have difficulty explaining their condition to their peers.

“[Some] make comments like, ‘you’re too young to be sick.’ Some profs are great though. It just needs to be talked about,” she said.

After being diagnosed with Hip Dysplasia in 2008 and Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease in 2010, Harmgardt said that she founded InvisAbilities last year as a way to connect with other students going through similar experiences.

“I was thinking that there’s got to be other people around me like this,” she said. “It was really born out of frustration, profs not understanding, and friends not understanding.”

“I use the elevator, and people look at me because I can’t take one flight of stairs. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s really something that needs to be changed,” she said. “[But] it’s easier to get support from those who … understand. To get that we have to talk about it.”

Harmgardt said she frequently gets emails from students asking to join her organization. Raising awa-reness about invisible disabilities includes showing people that someone’s identity isn’t defined by their disability, Rae said.

“It’s human nature for everyone to make judgments. I thought that way before I was diagnosed too. We want to change the idea that just because you have an illness that is your identity.”

Dr. Jennifer Rae, a physician at Queen’s Health, Counselling and Disability Services, was the guest speaker at the opening event of Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week, held on March 13 in the JDUC.

Rae said that although invisible disabilities are a relatively new concept, the conditions themselves aren’t new, and that Health, Counselling and Disability Services acts as a referral centre to Queen’s InvisAbilities.

“Helping young people learn is an essential part of what we do,” Rae told the Journal via email. “We have an excellent Disability Services Department here at Queen’s, and the Student Health Clinic is staffed by physicians who try to be very sensitive to the unique needs of students coping with illness.”

Rae said that students with invisible disabilities like type one diabetes face many burdens, especially being believed by their peers. Rae said that invisible illnesses also include mental ones, some of which may result from a chronic illness.

Because symptoms of invisible illnesses are often vague and similar to many other conditions, Rae said that it can be frustrating to students suffering them until they receive a diagnosis.

“Treatment often comes down to symptom management and pain relief,” Rae told the Journal via email. “In reality, doctors know very little [about] what causes them or how to cure them.” Rae said that the way we treat people with illness needs to be addressed to help challenge our misconceptions.

“We sometimes find ourselves blaming someone for getting sick,” she said. “To hear someone has lung cancer and never smoked–now that’s scary. Even today, people are remarkably superstitious, and perhaps they think that whatever it is that the sick person has, they’ll get it too.”

For more information about Queen’s InvisAbilities, contact Julie at julie.harmgardt@queensu.ca.

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