The Side of Sensory Disabilities Most People Are Not Aware of.
Some of the most known sensory disabilities, such as blindness and deafness*, are the result of sensory impairments and there are schemes like Disability Tax credit and CPP disability benefits which can help alleviate some of the financial burden of sensory disabilities. But not all of them.
There is a growing awareness of sensory disabilities in the other direction: hypersensitivity. People with these disabilities experience sensory overload which can make it impossible to access everyday spaces or accomplish daily tasks. (*Note: Not everyone with sensory impairments feels they live with a disability and it’s important to respect how they identify — they are the experts on their bodies!)
What is sensory overload?
Sensory overload is something that anybody can get. We all have our comfortable ranges of stimuli, like preferred music volume or phone screen brightness. When these are too intense, it can feel alarming, painful, irritating and tiring to process. If you have average sensory processing, you’re likely able to weather the overload and take action to make yourself feel more comfortable. But if you have a hypersensitivity, not only might the sensory overload incapacitate you, but even “normal” amounts of stimulus can trigger an intense reaction. This is because at this high level of sensory overload, the fight or flight instinct kicks in.
In some instances, sensory bombardment has been used as a method of torture and coercion, most famously by the US Army when they blasted heavy metal for days to provoke the surrender of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from a besieged embassy. While not necessarily this extreme, sensory overload can make going out feel like torture.
What are the sensory hypersensitivities and how can these be a disability?
There are many medical conditions that can cause hypersensitivities of the senses. One of the most known is autism spectrum disorder. Others conditions include migraine, sensory processing disorder (SPD) and environmental illness (also known as multiple chemical sensitivities). As sensory hypersensitivities can be so wide-reaching, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other medical conditions that can make at least one of your senses feel too powerful.
Spaces with lots of sensory stimulation can be inaccessible to people with hypersensitivities of the senses, but the unafflicted might never notice because the levels of stimulus are often normal or bearable to them.
Since we use our senses to navigate the world every day, all aspects of life might suffer if there’s a hypersensitivity. Depending on your level of sensitivity, you might be able to prevent sensory overload by controlling your triggers, but once you leave your home, you are at the mercy of the world and the people around you. The question to ask yourself is: do your symptoms disrupt parts of your life and are they are barriers to participating in society?
Does taking public transit feel inaccessible, due to passenger’s perfumes, loud conversations or being squished in confined spaces? Are you unable to focus at work, or relax at home, because of loud or fragrant coworkers, roommates, guests, neighbours? Is putting on clothes or sleeping on bed sheets near impossible because of the tactile sensations? — If you are able to withstand these, do you still find yourself falling behind at work or school as a result?
These scenarios don’t even begin to do justice to how intense and debilitating sensory hypersensitivities can be. I would like to offer a personal anecdote of what sensory overload can feel like:
One of my strongest senses is smell. When I am exposed to average or strong scents, the feeling can take over my whole body. It reminds me of a time I came close to drowning after swimming under a barrier at the surface of the water. The moment I realized I couldn’t bring my head out of the water, an intense realization that I might die flooded my body. Time slowed and instinct took over to give me the energy to make it back to where I entered the water. When I am exposed to scents, it feels like I am in the middle of a thick gaseous cloud and my brain won’t let me breathe it in, much like it wouldn’t allow me to inhale water. It feels like I need to find the surface of the water so that I can breathe again. My cortisol shoots up and I enter fight or flight mode. Sometimes it doesn’t get this bad; it might only give me nausea and a migraine, but sometimes, the scent makes me feel like I will actually die.
Smell can be a strong sensory barrier, even to the most mundane activities. Fragrant hair products can prevent me from going to a hairdresser. The scented clothing detergent isle makes it difficult to buy toilet paper since they’re in the same isle. The most consequential barrier is that I have to leave my desk every time a coworker applies a scented hand cream or sanitizer, otherwise a headache will disrupt the rest of my day. Whether I stay or whether I go, either way I become less productive.
The good news
Thankfully, more and more workplaces, government buildings, schools and hospitals are beginning to go scent-free or scent-reduced to accommodate some people’s olfactory sensitivities. While scent sensitivities might be the most accommodated, due to the high prevalence of migraine and environmental illnesses, it is heartening that sensory hypersensitivities are beginning to be recognized. Hopefully this recognition will translate into reduced sensory barriers across all the senses. Until all sensory disabilities are accommodated, there is at least the disability tax credit which can help alleviate some of the burden of sensory disabilities.