This past July was Disability Pride Month and also marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The term “disability” may conjure up images of the internationally recognized blue handicap sign or a person with a clearly seen disability. However, not every disability is visible.
Hannah Mone, a senior biology and ecology major from Charlotte, North Carolina, had spinal fusion surgery her sophomore year. She noticed her spine sticking out and experienced pain during her freshman year at the University of Georgia.
After an X-ray, Mone found out she had a herniated disc, and without surgery she would have been paralyzed. As a result, she has a hard time walking or standing for long periods of time, but she is still able to do so unassisted.
“Unless I lift my shirt up and show someone my scar, I don’t look like I had spinal fusion surgery.”
-Hannah Mone, UGA student
During surgery, Mone had compilations which made her sick and caused her to miss the first three weeks of the second semester of her sophomore year, she said. Many of her professors weren’t understanding when she had to miss the first three weeks of school, and Mone said some professors thought she was just being lazy.
“I think it was a big thing because it’s a hidden disability,” Mone said. “Unless I lift my shirt up and show someone my scar, I don’t look like I had spinal fusion surgery. So people don’t really think much of it.”
Mone said she thinks a lot of her professors had trouble believing her disability because they’ve heard almost every excuse in the book from students trying to get better grades.
Amelia Holley, a senior human development and family science major from Sandy Springs, Georgia, on the other hand, has found her professors to be understanding of her invisible disability.
“It’s a very people-centered major, so I think all the professors have to have that level of empathy,” Holley said.
Holley, like Mone, has a hard time getting around campus. She gets fatigued easily due to a stroke she had roughly four and a half years ago, so it’s “not ideal” to get around such a large campus.
Holley said getting around South Campus is much easier than North Campus because there are more accommodations. When she broke her foot at the beginning of last year and had to use a scooter to get around campus, it was difficult to get in the buildings on North Campus. She understands the university wants to preserve the historical integrity of the buildings, but it’s still frustrating, Holley said.
Mone had trouble before her surgery getting to classes in North Campus buildings like Park Hall and Baldwin Hall because she was in so much pain. A lot of the time, she would have to lay in the back seat of her car between classes and have her friends bring her food from the dining hall because the thought of sitting was too much for her, Mone said.
Although there is room for improvement with accessibility to buildings on North Campus and a better counselor-to-student ratio within the Disability Resource Center, Holley said the center has done a good job overall.
Mone said the DRC has been helpful to her as well. In one of her biology labs, there were no chairs, and she needs to be able to sit down because walking or standing for long periods of time is difficult for her. The teaching assistant who ran her biology lab didn’t seem to care if Mone needed a chair, so the DRC helped her get one, she said.
Mone said another struggle with having an invisible disability is that people can perceive her need to rest as her being inconsiderate.
“I would sometimes just lay on one of those benches outside of the classroom [at the Science Learning Center], and I felt bad,” Mone said. “I know people are thinking, ‘Wow this girl is taking up a whole seat,’ but my back just couldn’t hold me up anymore.”
Holley said she has trouble with remembering to “take it slow” and not trying to be “normal” because she’ll tire herself out. However, she also doesn’t love the idea of explaining she can’t keep up by describing her disability to random people.
In order to stave off perceptions of those with invisible disabilities being seen as lazy or inconsiderate, Mone said professors and staff — and perhaps even students — should take a training course on disabilities so they have a better understanding of those with disabilities on campus.