How it all began…
Hi! I’m Julie Harmgardt. I’m the Founder and Chair of InvisAbilities.
You’re probably wondering how InvisAbilities came about. In the fall of 2009, during my second year at Queen’s University, I became suddenly ill after having corrective surgery for hip dysplasia. I woke up one morning unable to get myself out of bed. The original hip pain had spread into every joint of my body. I didn’t know what to do, or where to turn. I went from being a vibrant, enthusiastic, on-the-go young woman… to pushing myself out the door, barely making it to my classes. I didn’t know what was going on. I was alone, afraid and living three hours away from home.
To make a long story short, it turned out the surgery had stressed my body so badly that it had brought out this underlying condition. While being treated with heavy pain medications, I was bounced from specialist to specialist for over a year. Finally, I was diagnosed with Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, a form of rheumatic arthritis, in addition to hypothyroidism and hip dysplasia.
Dealing with the frustration of living with an “invisible” illness, I learned to be my own advocate. But it wasn’t easy. I kept running into comments like “But you’re always so happy, you can’t be feeling that bad.” and “You’re too young to be sick!” and “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll get better soon.”
I knew that I wasn’t the only one dealing with these misconceptions on a daily basis. I began looking for a campus student-based group that could provide programs and services, but with a student/peer-based approach. I searched, but there was nothing available on campus.
To fill this void, I founded a student group at Queen’s University called InvisAbilities. I set out with the goal to change the conventional (and oftentimes incorrect) perceptions associated with hidden, chronic illness and foster an environment of inclusion and awareness amongst the university community.
I began with a variety of initiatives: “Invisible Disability Awareness Week”, Buddy Program, InvisAble Yoga, Lending Library, Discussion Forums. The club was an instant success and boomed with over 50 members during its first two years.
The university administration is extremely supportive of InvisAbilities. Demonstrating their enthusiasm, I was recently awarded the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award by the Principal of Queen’s University for advancing disability-related initiatives and awareness on campus.
My experience at Queen’s pushed me to think beyond my university microcosm. I’m currently directing my efforts to ensure these student-run programs and services are available to students at other university and colleges.
Although falling chronically ill was never part of my life plan, it has been a “gift” of sorts. It has pushed me to reevaluate certain aspects of my life, allowed me to consider the world through multiple perspectives and continually provides the opportunity to meet people who inspire me. InvisAbilities is a passion that truly comes from the heart.