Understanding Mental Illness as Disability

Written by Austin Mardon

My wife uses a walker. She was severely injured many years ago, and spent 8 years in a wheelchair. Her disability is very visible. When someone sees her, they know immediately some of the accommodations that her disability will need, such as a ramp or elevator. My disability isn’t visible. I have a mental illness, schizophrenia. When people see me, they don’t know that I have this condition unless I tell them. They can’t imagine the kinds of accommodations my disability might require.

A disability is just that, something that detracts from our ability to do something that we ordinarily might be able to do. Mental illnesses certainly fall into that category. They can have both “positive” and “negative” symptoms. They positive symptoms aren’t great things like super strength, but rather stuff that gets added to your personality like hallucinations or paranoia. Negative symptoms are things that are erased from a normal personality like the ability to read body language or feel happiness.

My mental illness has robbed me of the ability to do many normal tasks. I have trouble holding my concentration long enough to read a book. That may not seem like a large problem to most people, but it was one of my greatest pleasures in life before I got sick. Now it makes it difficult for me to have full time employment. I wouldn’t be able to read an employee manual or training resources. This illness has also robbed me of the ability to socialize properly. I can seem rude or abrupt without meaning to. That would greatly reduce my ability to handle a job dealing with the general public.

Outside a work environment, my illness causes all sorts of deficits. Having hallucinations is obviously going to make my life difficult. The symptoms of other mental illnesses can be just as disabling. Depression can cause a person to have as much trouble getting out of bed as someone who is paralyzed or dealing with chronic pain. Having hallucinations that can affect not only our sight and sound but also smell and taste, can make navigating down a crowded street or into a crowded building just as difficult as someone who has vision problems.

The medications that can give us our lives back can come with their own horrible side effects. Many employers would have concern about hiring someone who will have trouble coming to work early because their medication makes them groggy. Illnesses such as social anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder can trap people in their homes every bit as much as someone who has mobility issues. My wife has often said that the PTSD from her injuries is more disabling that her physical injuries. She’s not able to use the telephone. That greatly complicates her day to day activities in a way only someone with hearing loss could understand.

My hope is that through education, we will be able as a society to start making accommodations for the mentally ill that we have successful begun in accommodating for the physically disabled. Those of us who struggle with a mental illness understand well that we have disabilities. Now we need to begin letting society know what our abilities are in spite of those disabilities.

Understanding Mental Illness as Disability Understanding Mental Illness as Disability

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The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Alberta is made up of eight regions. Additionally CHMA in Alberta includes the Centre for Suicide Prevention and a Divisional (Provincial) office located in Edmonton.

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