Young women with 'invisible' disabilities share their stories

May 9, 2019

Arizona State University Associate Professor Heather Switzer and alumna Anastasia Todd are using the power of narrative to break the current framework of what it means to be a young woman with a disability.

Their research project, titled “You can’t see it, but I’ve got a lot of s--- going on”: Young Women, Invisible Disability and the Paradox of Passing, has found that young women with “invisible” disabilities are often dismissed. Their disabilities are deemed less valid than other disabilities that people can see. ASU student watching sunset Many young women struggle with disabilities that aren't obvious at first glance. Download Full Image

Switzer is an associate professor of women and gender studies at ASU, whose research focuses on the cultural constructions of girlhood in different places throughout the world.

Todd graduated from ASU with a doctorate in gender studies in 2016. She is currently an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Kentucky. 

Switzer and Todd met serendipitously when Todd took Switzer’s undergraduate course, Girlhood and Adolescence. Later, Switzer would become Todd’s adviser and co-chair of her doctoral dissertation.

Just five years after the two first met, Switzer shared a peer-reviewed article by Todd in her Girlhood and Adolescence course. The article, on disabled girlhood, caused a reaction in Switzer’s classroom that she had not seen before. 

“My students were a bright and talkative group, and when one young woman raised her hand and started, ‘I don’t usually tell people this, but I have an anxiety disorder…,’ before I realized what was happening, another followed,” said Switzer.

One by one, several girls shared the conditions they were dealing with on a daily basis — conditions that were invisible and that they actively hid so they could appear “normal” to others.

Switzer knew she had to talk to Todd about what she had seen.

“We decided to put our skills together,” said Todd. “We are both interested in cultural narratives and gendered bodies as cultural forms. I specifically have the background in feminist disability studies and affect theory, and Heather has qualitative research design and interviewing experience.”

Together, they were a perfect team to conduct a study on the intersection of invisible disability and young womanhood.

As part of their research, Switzer and Todd have interviewed over 40 undergraduate young women between the ages of 18 and 24 with disabilities such as lupus, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid conditions, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

These disabilities, though unseen, have significant physical and emotional effects.

But due to the cultural experiences participants in the study had faced, many felt they were not “disabled enough” to receive any accommodations or assistance. 

“Every single one of our participants expressed that at one point or another they felt that their disability was dismissed or under suspicion because of their gender and age,” said Todd.

Young women shared that they were dismissed or not believed by peers, family members, doctors and professors.

“This project has brought to stark relief what I have always known but maybe not ever deeply enough,” Switzer said. “As teachers, we have no idea what our students are going through, and gender, race, sexuality, citizenship status and class have tremendous bearing on the experience of disability, invisible and visible.”

Despite current misconceptions, young women with invisible disabilities deserve the same access to accommodation granted to those with disabilities that are perhaps, because of cultural norms, easier to identify and understand. 

Switzer and Todd have collected the narratives of their participants in order to shift the culture surrounding disability.

“The overarching goal of our project is to intervene in how our culture imagines disability — as something that is unchanging, physical and visible — and share the narratives of young women who do not fit into that preexisting framework,” Todd said. “Our project values the narratives of young women who manage a multitude of invisible disabilities and brings these narratives forward in order to create an alternative imagining of disability.”

The narratives that they’ve collected help broaden the meaning of disability — as an experience that can change day to day, and as something that you can’t always see.

These stories will help young women with invisible disabilities start to understand that their conditions are valid as well as help others know that their disabilities are real.

That way, young women with invisible disabilities will start to feel comfortable asking for the help and support that they need and have a right to. 

This research project has been supported by funding from the ASU Institute for Humanities Research, the women and gender studies program at ASU, and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky.

Lauren Whitby

Communications Specialist, ASU Institute for Humanities Research


ASU grad hopes to decrease disparities in public health

May 9, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Lucia Garcia used to think that a career in the health field meant being a clinician. She graduated this week from Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions with a degree in public health, a minor in Spanish and the knowledge and know-how to take full advantage of the many career paths a degree in her chosen discipline can offer. ASU grad Lucia Garcia on Palm Walk at ASU's Tempe campus Lucia Garcia Download Full Image

Garcia has been involved and connected in public health outside of class, including as a student manager for the Sun Devil Fitness Complex at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, where she concentrated on sports and adaptive programming.

“I have always been interested in fitness and wellness, and I wanted to work in an environment that had those same values as well,” she said.

“I love my coworkers, the working environment, the events we put on at the gym and the culture that the work environment encompasses. The facility is beautiful, but more so, the professional staff and my co-workers are all so supportive of one another, which I love and will miss the most!”

Garcia said she now has a direction for her career thanks to attending ASU and said she eventually wants to work in either hospital administration, a government entity or a nonprofit agency to help decrease health disparities between populations.

She spoke with ASU Now about where her public health journey is taking her next and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: When I was in my ASU 101 class during my freshman year, we discussed at large what public health was. A large component of the field revolves around looking at prevention efforts to deter the onset of health problems, but it also focuses on taking a holistic/big-picture approach when thinking about solutions to health disparities.

It led me to the realization that this method of thinking would allow me to create the most long-term solutions for all in the health care field. Through this class I realized that I wanted to dedicate my time to studying public health.

Q: What extracurricular activities were you involved with while at ASU?

A: I was involved in a variety of organizations throughout my four years at ASU!

I was the president and one of the co-founders of the Public Health Student Association. I worked at New Student Orientation to welcome incoming freshmen to the university for four years. I am a member of the leadership program of the Next Generation Service Corps. I worked on a research project with a doctoral student, which is pending publishing currently, and I worked at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex for three years. Additionally, I completed internships at the Phoenix Symphony, WIC, Nutrition Alliance and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I was surprised to learn all the avenues a health care degree could lead someone to. I used to think that the only route for someone in the health care field was to receive clinical training and become a doctor or a nurse.

But all my classes emphasized that there was such a vast array of opportunities out there to become involved in the health care system. It helped me discover that I want to work in either hospital administration or for a government entity or nonprofit agency to help decrease health disparities between populations.

I now have a direction for my career, and the College of Health Solutions really helped cultivate that, as I am sure it did for many other students!

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I wanted to stay in state for my undergraduate degree, and I knew ASU had the innovative College of Health Solutions that I wanted to join.

In addition to the educational aspect, I knew I wanted to attend football and basketball games and become a Sun Devil!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Lauren Savaglio taught me to always stay curious and to always step up and ask for help, whether in classes or in life.

She taught me to also take advantage of all opportunities and to really go out of my comfort zone and try new things and experiences. I also learned from her different study habits, and she always emphasized that I should stay calm and take time to relax when I am stressed. She has been my mentor throughout my time at ASU, and I am eternally grateful for her guidance!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Work hard and play hard! Studying and striving for a high GPA is important, but more than that, it is important to stay involved and take advantage of all the experiences ASU has to offer.

I wish I would have attended more sporting events and fun events put on by my college and school, so make sure to continue to stay involved!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is the top of Sun Devil Fitness Complex Downtown at the rooftop pool. It is a very relaxing spot to overlook the city, and I always feel calmer when I am up there!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be attending UCLA in the fall to pursue my master’s in public health with a concentration in policy and management. I am so excited to become a Bruin but will always be a Sun Devil at heart!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would use the $40 million to reduce health disparities globally and within the United States. I would try to create new prevention and education initiatives for some of the top and most deadly health problems, such as the chronic diseases of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

I would also work on efforts to provide everyone, especially those who are in a disadvantaged position, the opportunity to receive necessary health care services at an affordable cost.

Written by Sun Devil Storyteller Holly Bernstein, EOSS Marketing