So often, when we reference a disability, we focus on disabilities that are visible; we are aware that a person has a disability. This might include a person who is blind or low vision, a wheelchair user or a person with another mobility disability. Perhaps you know a person with diabetes or epilepsy, so you are keenly aware of their needs. But what about those individuals with invisible disabilities? I’d venture to guess that the average person isn’t envisioning a person with chronic pain or a mental health disorder when thinking about a person with a disability.
At the RMADAC, we often remind people that just because a disability isn’t visible, it doesn’t make it any less real. This is particularly true in the case of brain injuries. March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, lead by The Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA).
I am close with several people who have an acquired brain injury (ABI). These injuries are typically categorized as a non-traumatic brain injury or traumatic brain injury (TBI). The BIAA defines a TBI as “an alteration in brain function, or other evidence of brain pathology, caused by an external force.” This might include a trauma induced by a fall, a car accident, or a sports injury. A non-traumatic brain injury is caused internally from something like lack of oxygen, a stroke, or a drug overdose.
Because the individual with a brain injury looks normal, it can be difficult for friends, family, and others to react to changes in behavior. Several years back, my mother crashed and burned on a downhill bicycle ride down Pikes Peak. If you are not familiar with Pikes Peak, it is the highest of the Rocky Mountains, standing at 14, 115 feet high! Immediately after her crash, which left her unconscious for a short period of time, she had short-term memory loss, which lasted several days. In addition, her reasoning and judgement skills were adversely affected as she recovered. In her case, she did not feel as if she was acting any differently than before her accident.
Another close friend of mine had two brain injuries over the course of six months. First, a car accident and a bump to the head caused a TBI. The effect of her TBI was so debilitating that she experienced extreme depression, leading to a suicide attempt, which caused her to be without oxygen for a period. The lack of oxygen resulted in a coma. Her recovery has been slow, and the effect has been far-reaching. Unable to concentrate for long periods of time, she is no longer employed, which has lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In her case, she is keenly aware of how her personality and behaviors have changed.
With both my mother and my friend, their physical appearances are the same as before they acquired their brain injuries. Their disabilities are completely invisible. While I am aware of how their injuries may impact their personalities, others may not understand why there is a sudden change in emotions or they no longer have impulse control. These impairments are far-reaching and can affect people with brain injuries when it comes to relationships, employment, and social situations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published that there were 2.8 million TBI-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths in the US during 2013. Of course, these are just the cases that are documented by hospitals and don’t count TBI’s that may go undiagnosed. As we go about our everyday lives, it’s important to consider why certain individuals may exhibit erratic behavior or be forgetful. In the workplace, we should be aware of job accommodations for individuals with TBI. Employers should train staff on effective communication for customers who may have a brain injury.
I hope that this month, you will take the time to consider how brain injury may affect you or your loved ones and seek solutions to ensuring integration of affected individuals into mainstream society.