In Adam Van der Zwan’s recent article published in the Feb. 29 issue of The Peak, “TransLink Shouldn’t Add Signage for Invisible Illnesses,” he states that we can only “properly accommodate those with physical disabilities, rather than invisible ones.” This opening assertion sets the tone for a misinformed and problematic commentary on the roles that TransLink has in accommodating those with disabilities.
Firstly, the idea that in order for a disability to be physical it must be visible, is simply false. Many invisible illnesses are physical ones. Examples range from illnesses such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an illness that causes chronic joint pain, to fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that creates muscular pain and fatigue, to many other possible combinations of pains, illnesses, and disabilities. For these people, a seat nearer to the front of the bus means the world.
The article continues to assert the claim that while asking TransLink to make an addition to the signage to include those with invisible illnesses is a “safe request,” it is equivalent to asking customers to be considerate, something that Van der Zwan says TransLink already does. While having priority seating for those with disabilities is considerate, there is still improvement to be made. Metro, the primary public transportation company in Washington, already has signage that alerts customers to the existence of invisible illnesses. “Who needs this seat? You’d be surprised,” reads the sign. This example demonstrates that the problem is not “out of reach,” as Van der Zwan claims. In fact, it would be simple for TransLink to create similar signage.
However, the article carries on, suggesting that people with invisible disabilities carry signs displaying their illness, or, even more shockingly, tattoo an indicator of their disability on their bodies. This reaches an entire new level of ableism. To ask someone with a disability to visibly mark themselves as disabled so that others may recognize their needs is to perpetuate the idea that disabilities define us. For many, disabilities are personal, and it isn’t anybody else’s business what bodily malfunctions are affecting them.
This idea as an alternative to increased signage directed towards able-bodied people who have for far too long been sitting in seats not meant for them casts the blame in the wrong direction.
It is the combined responsibility of TransLink as a company to increase signage, and able-bodied customers to not sit in priority seating when they don’t need it. Yes, this includes even when the bus is full. Why? Because you as an able-bodied person are capable of standing on the bus, and should someone with an invisible illness come aboard who actually needs that seat, it should be available to them without risk of uncomfortable confrontation.
While ableism as a whole will certainly not end with an additional symbol on a sign, it is an excellent start to ending the coexisting cultures of ignorance and silence that surround invisible illnesses.