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Traveling with a non-visible disability

by | May 25, 2022 | Travel | 2 comments

After having emergency brain surgery, I have had some experiences and realizations that I never envisioned.  One of the most striking realizations is about non-visible disabilities.  The side effects from my surgery are not noticeable, but I consider them a disability.  I am blessed to say that I am fortunate not to have any extreme adverse side effects from my surgery.  However, I still suffer from headaches, short-term memory loss, and tiredness.  I will be traveling with a non-visible disability for the foreseeable future.

An invisible disability is defined as “disabilities that are not immediately apparent.”  For example, I was out shopping with my daughter.  Even though there were no outward signs of my fatigue, headache, or exhaustion, I was experiencing those symptoms.  As my daughter shopped, there was no place to sit, and the few places available were occupied by men waiting for their wives/girlfriends.  I knew from personal experience the wisdom of the saying, “you never know what someone is going through.” Now more than ever, I can say that I genuinely understand empathy and kindness.  Through my personal experience, I can now add an awareness of non-visible disability to my reality.

As a purser flight attendant, I remember coordinating the boarding process with the boarding agent.  Part of this coordination was the early boarding process of wheelchairs, as it took extra time for wheelchair passengers to board.  I remember being so frustrated with departures from Santo Domingo in particular because there were so many (in my mind) non-disabled young women in wheelchairs.  At the time,  I assumed these wheelchair passengers were non-disabled.  I did not realize that the destination, besides a place for beautiful all-inclusive resorts, was also a popular destination for plastic surgery.  So, although they looked fine on the outside, these young women were probably in considerable pain from their surgeries.  They needed the wheelchairs I assumed were unnecessary.

In another experience, I was once working on a flight.  The crew consisted of flight attendants who had been flying over.  The junior flight attendants complained about the senior flight attendant not knowing what she was doing.  As the purser, I talked to this senior flight attendant about her impact on the flight and crew.  She explained to me that her father had unknowingly run over her little boy, and this was one of her first trips back to work since this unfortunate accident.  She did not want to come back to work and admitted she wasn’t emotionally ready.  Still, she had no choice because of finances.

Those experiences were life lessons for me in empathy and kindness.  I could not imagine the pain that the flight attendant was feeling, not only for herself but for her father, and the trauma of the accident for him.  These experiences made me realize that all disabilities do not have outward signs as I became older.  My inability to do certain things I took for granted has cemented my thoughts on disabilities, not just being outward showing.

As you travel or go about your daily lives, I hope you consider those around you that may not behave as you would like them.  You never know what non-visible disability that person may be experiencing.


  1. Martha Torres

    Thank you for this blog, Donna.
    I appreciate your vulnerability in these sensitive matters, especially when we consider the indices of growing violence in the USA.
    I know my comment may seem disconnected but bare with me.
    Violence doesn’t just happen at the pull of a trigger. People can be violent with their words and actions, as well. And the responsible government agencies do not support or care to address the evident ongoing spike in social and mental health issues. Instead, government officials defyingly ignore public safety and stump their greedy feet to protect their interests.
    Of course, mental health issues are part of a much bigger and more needed conversation.

    • Donna Hunter, PhD

      Thank you Martha, There is a connection in that too often we overlook the propensity of those we know who could possibly be violent, much as we overlook the non-visible disabilities. Can it be that we are too afraid of the violence itself to challenge words and actions? How can we tell when the social and mental issues we experience are within our ability to address? Furthermore, how can we as citizens get our government officials to protect our societal issues when big donors and organizations get their attention much more often than constituents do? There is no easy answer but it seems that recognizing the issues, whatever they may be, could be the first step.


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