The Lack of Invisible Disabilities and Illness in Literature (And What You Can Read to Educate Yourself)

As book sales continue to rise with people having to stay inside, we must think about those who have already experienced quarantine. Dr. Julian Maha writes, “Unfortunately, for those living with sensory needs and invisible disabilities, this social isolation is a normal way of life. For them, there is no return to the way things were.” Despite people with disabilities being the world’s largest minority, there is little to no literature that represents them, and when it does, it is often done in a harmful way. 

We, as readers, must do more to understand those with invisible disabilities. To do so, we must find novels that accurately portray those with such conditions. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan discusses her experiences with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Cahalan goes into detail on being misdiagnosed multiple times and how she was confined to her hospital bed, barely able to walk. Because of her illness, Cahalan’s life was put on hold for months as she experienced multiple psychotic episodes. 

Another book that features an account of coping with an invisible disability is Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. Manguso suffers an autoimmune disease that is so rare, it does not have a name. She underwent treatments in which her plasma was taken out of her body and replaced, along with steroid treatments. Her memoir serves as a portrait of what those with invisible disabilities and rare diseases go through, from forgetful nurses to complete alienation, all with an undertone of dark humor. More than anything, Manguso depicts the sheer loneliness that comes with having such a disease; she writes: “I tend to forget that my measurement of time is designed to distract me from what’s really happening.”

Now more than ever, these voices are essential to understanding our current world and how to survive in it. You can purchase Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness and The Two Kinds of Decay here

Kelsey Allen

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