People don’t argue when you say paraplegia is a disability, but when you say your bipolar disorder is, people often do argue. This is in spite of the fact that, legally, bipolar disorder is a real disability in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. So what is a “real” disability and why don’t people think bipolar is a real disability?

What’s a ‘Real’ Disability?

In case you’re wondering, “disability” is defined as:

a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions

That’s a dictionary definition, and not a legal one, (as legal ones get complex) but the short of it is this: a disability is an imposed limitation that keeps you from living the way other people do. (And in the case of a legal disability, this interruption in daily activities is profound.)

And as you may have noticed, “mental, cognitive, or developmental” conditions are right there in the definition. And yet, people still don’t think bipolar disorder is a real disability.

‘Real’ Disabilities Should Be Seen and Not Thought

One of the problems with bipolar disorder is that it’s an invisible illness. People often can’t see how sick a person is with bipolar disorder and so people fail to realize that it exists at all. When the person standing next to you is blind, that disability is obvious thanks to a white cane. When the person standing next to you has bipolar disorder, that disability is invisible — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But, of course, many invisible medical conditions can be disabilities. For example, few people would argue that constant migraines weren’t a disability, and yet they are completely invisible (in scans and to the average person).

‘Physical’ Disabilities and a Bipolar Disorder Disability

The second problem is that many people only think of disabilities as “physical” limitations. Again, a missing arm is obviously a physical disability and no one denies that.

The thing is, serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder are physical too. The scientific evidence of this is beyond the scope of this article, but here’s what I can tell you in a nutshell: a bipolar brain is not the same as a non-bipolar brain. While we cannot definitively diagnose bipolar disorder via scan just yet, physical differences in bipolar brains can be seen on scans.

In other words, a bipolar disorder disability is a physical disability — is a disability of the brain. We would recognize this brain disability if the brain had been changed in an accident and there’s no reason not to recognize it just because people were born with it instead of being victims of trauma after being born.

A ‘Real’ Bipolar Disorder Disability

But even if none of that convinces you, you should understand this: bipolar disorder is certainly is a “condition that limits a person’s ability to participate in daily activities.”

In fact, I can’t tell you the number of “daily activities” that are limited by my bipolar disorder. Everything from major things like working for a living to tiny things like showering are dramatically impacted by my illness. Every day is impacted by my bipolar disorder disability. I am in no way exaggerating when I say that.

Why Does It Matter that Bipolar Disorder Is a ‘Real’ Disability?

On the one hand, I don’t care whether you recognize that bipolar disorder is a real disability. I know that it is, and I’m the one being impacted by it, and that’s what matters.

On the other hand, it’s critical that society and individuals recognize a bipolar disorder disability so that people with bipolar disorder know it’s okay to be disabled by this serious mental illness. It’s not them, and it’s not their fault. No one cuts off a leg to get a disability designation and no one gets bipolar disorder for that reason either. Everyone with a disability is unlucky — not inherently flawed.

And by recognizing that bipolar disorder is a real disability, we become part of the larger disability community and start to recognize that we have the same rights as everyone else. For example, no one should not be hired because they are in a wheelchair if they can do the job. All they may need is some accommodation to do it. The same is true with a mental illness disability. If I can do the job with reasonable accommodation, then I should be hired if I’m the most qualified candidate.

In short, recognizing bipolar disorder as a real disability can be part of regaining our self-worth and taking control of our future. It’s healthy. It reinforces the notion that bipolar disorder is not a moral failing or character flaw — it’s a physical disability that exists alongside chronic illnesses like epilepsy and migraines. We are not alone and there is nothing wrong with us.

Image under Creative Commons License from here.