This post was written by Jorell Tanusaputra, a UTS student and member of the Student Learning Advisory Committee (SLAC).

It took me five years since I first experienced invisible chronic pain to finally be confident and comfortable in disclosing my chronic pain to my colleagues, manager, teachers, tutors and subject coordinator. I realise that this struggle is not uncommon for individuals with chronic pain. A survey done by Business Review reveals that only 39% people with disabilities disclosed their conditions in their workplace and 62% of the survey respondents have invisible disabilities.  

I strongly relate to Angelique, who wrote in her blog Not all chronic illnesses are visible, that she wished she could have an arm sling or leg cast so tutors would be more compassionate towards her. I personally resonate with this since others cannot see my condition. As a result, I fear my tutors or subject coordinator would think I am a lazy student who makes excuses about my capacity to complete my assignments online, and I feel discouraged about disclosing my disabilities. 

What happens when students with chronic pain do not have support

Due to the lack of awareness about invisible chronic pain, I felt discouraged to ask for help as I assumed my teachers would not understand, and I continued to struggle with chronic pain during the first year of my uni life. This caused me to carry a lot of anxiety, stress and bitterness in my studies, which led me to unhealthily avoid and procrastinate my uni work. As a result, I was burnt out mentally and physically and had frustration and resentment towards the education system – an overall unhealthy study experience. I was forced to spend a lot of time and money to regain my physical and mental health back because of the stressful semester, and I wished I had known the help that is available, such as the Accessibility Service, which could have helped to prevent this. 

Impressions matter 

Fortunately, I found my support after my first semester. I was more than comfortable disclosing my disabilities to some of my subject coordinators. Firstly, it was because they used friendly and warm language in their announcements and emails. This made me feel that they care about their students and are willing to help. They also emphasised (in their Canvas module or emails) that special considerations and accessibility needs were available for me, which gave the impression that they were aware of different student accessibility needs. Their actions not only made me tremendously less anxious about my studies but also have respect and admiration towards them and their subject.

Supporting students with invisible chronic pain

When I first tried to disclose my disability, I was nervous – not knowing what words to say, how I should present myself or what requests I should put forward. In other words, I was not equipped to communicate my accessibility requirements. It would be great to give the benefit of the doubt to students who claim to have invisible chronic illness but at the same time give them space to build up their communication skills in discussing their conditions and asking for appropriate services that are needed. Of course, teachers can ask for more information when it’s needed, but with the intention of building students up rather than trying to shut them down. It is best for these conversations to take place before the subject starts to provide clarity for students regarding their accessibility with the course.

This will not only benefit the students but also others. These benefits include: 

  • They would be grateful towards you.
  • They would feel heard and recognised, which can lead to respect, more participation and engagement in class, and help students to do well in class. 
  • They would want to build connection with you (we never forget people who care for our accessibility needs).
  • You can empower students to spread the word and help others. Some may be willing to help since chronic pain is very personal to us and we want to help others with similar conditions (especially if we have overcome it).

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