Invisible disabilities demand our understanding

I often think Moses dropped a Commandment as he descended from the mountain. Thou must not judge other people by their appearances should have been that 11th Commandment.

I learn practically every day that I shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover” and come to rash, unfounded conclusions about people simply based on their appearances. Yet it is a sin I commit almost hourly even though the last thing I want people to do is to come to conclusions about me based on my appearance.

And yet appearances only tell half the story in the world of disabilities. It is is incredibly obvious that my limbs are twisted and you don’t have to be very astute to see that my son Jason has Down syndrome. But recently the other side of disabilities, the invisible side, has entered my consciousness and caused me some real concern about my own insensitivity.

Invisible disabilities require us to be sensitive even though we may not immediately recognize them. I developed a close friendship with a man with tinnitus, ringing in the ear and just yesterday I found that another friend suffers with it too.  Several months ago I read this long story about misophonia, the hatred of sounds. And now a celebrity, Kelly Ripa, has said she suffers from that disease which strikes me as a hateful one.

Just this week I encountered a well-functioning student who deals with a condition that was absolutely new to me called Synaesthesia.  “It is a phenomenon in which the stimulation of a sense can activate other senses. Synaesthetes perceive their environment a little differently, than other people: Music can be colored, letters and figures can be associated with genders and personality types, and forms can have a taste.”

My student associates colors with letters. I was stunned to hear about such a thing but the student was quick to tell me she does not consider it a disability. I admire that attitude but I tend to consider anything I wouldn’t want to have as a disability.

When I hear about the invisible challenges I am forced to ponder how many unfair conclusions I have made about people because I did not realize that their behavior was caused by an invisible disability. It reminds me that I have to cut everyone slack and assume the best about them.

There is much debate about who said it but I have always been smitten with the quote: “Be kind, everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

Those are rich, guiding words for every day encounters with people who may be suffering in ways we simply can’t see.

Tim McGuire is the author of  “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance