Student Organization Provides Support and Awareness for Invisible Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses

The IBS Impact founder made contact recently with InvisAbilities, an organization which currently offers peer-run support and other programs for students with invisible disabilities or chronic illnesses, as well as public awareness activities related to invisible conditions, at three universities in Canada.

InvisAbilities was founded in 2009 by Julie Harmgardt, a student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, after she acquired multiple invisible conditions. It has since become a national organization and new chapters have recently been started by students at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec and the University of Ottawa in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, Ontario. It appears that these student groups are well accepted by the university administrations and Julie hopes that eventually InvisAbilities will have chapters on all university campuses throughout Canada.

At Queen’s, so far, offerings for those involved with InvisAbilities have included discussion groups and social events in centrally located and accessible campus locations, a buddy program whereby students can be matched with someone with a similar disability or condition for peer support, a lending library of books about various invisible disabilities, awareness events such as a film screening and awareness week,  a yoga class adapted to the needs of those with chronic pain or decreased mobility, and temporary financial assistance for transportation in certain situations. A recent article on the McGill chapter notes that the organization is open to all, including those with invisible conditions themselves, interested friends and anyone who believes in the cause. The article mentions an exchange student from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a visitor from Carleton University in Ottawa who both participated in InvisAbilities activities during their stays at McGill.

From information on InvisAbilities’ website, blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds and linked media coverage, it appears that InvisAbilities attracts members with a wide range of conditions including irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, connective tissue disorders, diabetes, food allergies, mental illness, migraines and cancer, among others.  From our communication, Julie states that she is familiar with some of the challenges of GI conditions such as IBS, as well as the common taboo about discussing it in public. She states that she believes this stigma is particularly difficult for those who are young.

Recent InvisAbilities blog posts on inflammatory bowel disease and Type 1 diabetes, as well as a list of common social misconceptions posted on the home page, make it clear that those with a wide range of invisible conditions face many of the same physical and social obstacles as many people with IBS: chronic pain, fatigue, embarrassing symptoms, questions or misunderstandings from others regarding food restrictions or choices,  perceptions from others that one does not appear ill or disabled, that a student of traditional age may be “too young” to have a chronic health condition,  that one is antisocial for declining activities with friends, or that one is lazy for missing school or work.  Many people with IBS often think that we are alone in our experiences, but we are not, and recognizing common ground with other people and groups can be an advantage, both in responding to our own individual situations and in encouraging awareness, advocacy and societal advances for our cause

IBS Impact is pleased to alert readers in Canada to this possibly local resource for peer support, and to welcome any InvisAbilities members or supporters with an interest in IBS who may find IBS Impact as a result. Additional content and links, including many new resources outside the United States, will soon be added to the main IBS Impact website. We encourage your input on Canadian resources and how the site and blog perhaps can be made more useful to citizens and residents of Canada. Submissions of articles from a Canadian and/or student perspective are also welcome. Please use the contact links on the home page of the main IBS Impact site.

For those blog readers who are neither in the above geographical areas of Canada nor university students, it is hoped that Julie’s and other students’ efforts in establishing InvisAbilities will serve as yet another real–life example of how concrete, grassroots actions can make a difference. Like IBS Impact, InvisAbilities began from one person’s personal experience, recognition of unmet needs, and desire to play a part in the process of long term-positive change. Get involved in IBS Impact, in InvisAbilities or any effort on behalf of the IBS cause that is right for you. The more voices that are publicly speaking out, the more our needs will be recognized by others.

Additional support options for IBS and some commonly overlapping conditions can be found on the links page of the main website, and within the November 18  blog post.

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