BY: RICHARD HASKELL
“You seem fine to me,” may be one of the worst things to say to a brain injury survivor – or anyone with a hidden disability – for that matter. This invisibility is one reason why Laura Brydges, an Ottawa woman living with the affects of brain injury, decided she need to do something to make hidden disabilities, visible. (You may have caught the recent Toronto Star article about her from a few weeks back.)
Since that article, Brydges’ Hidden Disability Facebook page has hit 5.2K likes. She’s getting attention from organizations, individuals and media from all over North America and the U.K. But a really big moment was receiving a photo of someone from the U.S. using one of her cards.
“I have been overwhelmed. I can’t even describe the emotion,” Brydges said. Seeing that photo just touched me to the core, it made it real.”
Brydges stresses that making hidden disabilities visible is a safety issue. She lists incidents where not understanding hidden disability can have deadly results. There was a child with autism in the U.S., she says, who was shot by the police. In Ottawa, there was a child in school who has handcuffed because of misunderstanding a hidden disability. In Winnipeg, there was a veteran with PTSD who was physically kicked out of a bar because he had a therapy dog. Brydges finds these stories and posts them on her Facebook page, collecting articles which prove her point, time and time again.
Like many brain injury survivors, Brydges faces significant obstacles in her daily life, most of which are hidden. She has problems concentrating and has a low tolerance for noise or bright lights. She cannot drive or use public transit. Being in a large crowd for more than a short time can cause her to become, what she refers to as, cognitively overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of tears.
Especially in the years right after her accident, Brydges says she couldn’t trust herself to be able to respond to an unexpected situation. For example, if someone on the street was having an emergency, she would have difficulty in processing information, to, for example, call 911. A frustrated first aid responder trying to enlist her help, repeating the message to her faster and louder to her would only make it worse.
Which is why, using nothing more than an interest in desktop publishing and sheer determination, Brydges designed a symbol consisting of a blue and white figure inside a circle with the words Hidden Disability on wallet-sized cards.
Similar to the international symbol of accessibility for those with physical disabilities, the card is something Brydges feels could be used by those affected by hidden disabilities such as brain injury, autism or epilepsy. She calls it ‘a self-advocacy tool’ people with hidden disabilities can use to educate the public on the obstacles they face every day.
Brydges began working on her hidden disability symbol in 2009. A year later, through Facebook, she found 592 adults to participate in an online survey about whether there was a need for a hidden disability symbol. The result: 80 per cent of the participants (the majority of whom had a hidden disability) agreed an international symbol was needed. A few years later, Brydges asked for feedback on how to develop the symbol, which originally was a checked figure. She changed that design after learning some people had difficulty processing it.
Brydges believes there’s a need for a hidden disability symbol, and the time is right for it. “I think people with hidden disabilities are ready. They’re tired of either living very small lives and not explaining themselves or having to explain themselves over and over again when they go out,” Brydges said. “They’re tired of people treating them poorly to the point of verbal abuse and sometimes to the point of physical abuse when they park in an accessible parking spot. Even though they have a permit. I think it’s just time.”
The hidden disability symbol could be her design or someone else’s, Brydges is all about the cause, and willing to let word about the symbol spread organically. She’s made the symbol available for download, with some stipulations, and is working on improving its print quality. The front of the cards can have the name of the condition on the bottom and the back can be customized to meet specific needs of each condition.
Brydges also believes organizations which serve people with hidden disabilities have to work together. “We’re stuck in this model of ‘I have this condition’ and ‘you have that condition’ instead of ‘when we’re out, these are the common problems with environments that aren’t highly conducive to our functioning,” she said.