Living Well When You’re Unwell

3 April 2019

(Content Warning: chronic illness)

Welcome to Living Well When You’re Unwell, a column that answers all your questions about navigating uni, life, relationships, and jobs with disability and chronic illness.

I hear the term ‘accessibility’ being talked about a lot. I thought accessibility only had to do with wheelchair access and I don’t want to sound stupid asking people what makes something accessible. Can you tell me about it?

– Afraid to Sound Dumb

You shouldn’t feel dumb for not knowing. Even those who have made careers in accessibility and disability advocacy are constantly learning about accessibility issues they had never heard of before. A good way to think about all the things that might pose barriers to accessibility is to consider your senses. How might someone find a barrier to sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch? You will also want to consider the impact of physical barriers and impacts on emotional or mental health.

20 percent of Australians report living with a disability, and over 90 percent of disabilities are “invisible”, meaning you can’t tell someone is disabled just by looking at them. This could refer to a learning disability, limitation to mobility, mental illness, chronic illness, limitation to mobility, blindness, hearing issues and more. The difficult part of accessibility is understanding the diversity of people’s needs. But having a disability isn’t an inherent set back. People with disabilities experience the most hardship when the world isn’t constructed in a way that can be navigated, which includes physical spaces and the attitudes from others.

I’ve put together a list of some common things to think about with accessibility. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start:

  • Is the space accessible for individuals with mobility devices?
  • Does this space impact the senses (e.g. lights, fragrance, or noise)?
  • Could this space/situation be harmful to mental health?
  • Is there accessible content (e.g. captions and screen readers)?
  • Can a person with disability navigate this space easily and with dignity?
  • Have you asked individuals attending if there are any barriers to their access needs?

Accessibility is a broad term. There are some great toolkits online that outline some common accessibility features, but accessibility is not one size fits all.

My friend just told me she is disabled. I don’t know anyone who has openly let me know they’re disabled before. I’m worried I might do or say something wrong. I don’t want to be rude by asking questions, but I want to make sure I’m not being ignorant. How can I be a good friend?

– Concerned Pal

It sounds like you’re already being a good friend! One of the best ways to know how you can be a good friend to your lovely pal is to ask. Beyond that, there are a few things you can do. You can do some research about her condition to get an understanding of what she might be experiencing. Googling doesn’t eliminate the need to actually communicate with your friend about her needs, but it’s good to try to understand what she is going through.

You should understand that there might be some things your friend can’t do. Or things she can do one day, but not the next. Don’t assume! Even if you think you know what to do in a certain situation—or you’re sure your friend can’t come to a certain event—let her decide. With chronic illnesses, sometimes symptoms fluctuate. Don’t make her feel weird about being able to go shopping one day but being too exhausted to leave her house the next.

Let your friend know that she’s not alone and you don’t think of her differently just because she has a disability. Be patient, be kind, and don’t make her feel like she’s a burden just because she has limitations.

Have a question on the general topic of disability and chronic illness? Send an email to to get your question answered. You don’t have to be living with a disability to send a question—any questions you might have about disability and health are welcome.

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