Jenny McGibbon: challenging negative perceptions of chronic illness through my blog and graphic design work

Jenny is a freelance graphic designer, blogger and disability advocate from Scotland. She was born with a birth defect called gastroschisis and, as a result, now lives with short bowel syndrome. Jenny also doesn’t have a belly button and has what her mum used to call a ‘zip’ instead.

For most of her childhood, Jenny was relatively healthy, bar the odd stay on the children’s ward. But at 16 her condition changed and she’s now been dealing with chronic illness for a decade. This was first with chronic internal bleeding, and then a few years later Jenny was diagnosed with ME, which causes chronic fatigue syndrome.

Jenny is determined to make sure that no young person feels alone in dealing with such health issues through her blog The Thing They Call Recovery.

Turning my disability centred blog into a business

My disability fuels my personal blog, This Thing They Call Recovery, which has recently turned into a freelance business and online community for those living with various illnesses and disabilities. When I was 16 years old, I found myself in and out of hospital almost weekly and I couldn’t relate to my peers anymore.

I suddenly found myself in this new medical space, but I couldn’t relate to anyone there either. I was always the youngest person in the waiting room by several decades, and it became abundantly clear that nothing there was aimed at me.

From the posters on the wall to the leaflets on the tables, I didn’t see myself reflected anywhere, and so I was left feeling isolated and confused.

Jenny is wearing a cropped black t-shirt and is standing in an open field

After some time, I stumbled across the ‘Spoon Theory’ online. I started searching through related hashtags on social media, and I found that this is where all the sick kids were. Suddenly I could relate to people again and I was making new friends online, many of them I still speak to today.

The sense of community brought me so much comfort, and over the years I wanted to get more involved. As I was learning more and more about what disability could mean and what it could look like, I realised I was allowed to use the word. I am disabled, and that is okay.

Starting my blog to help others with chronic illness

In 2018, I was forced to take time out of further education due to my health. Why does no one warn you about how boring illness can be?

Yes, there were plenty of painful and scary times in the mix too, but so much of my time was taken up by staring at the same four walls. I would improve enough to feel boredom, but not enough to do much about it.

Sometimes even watching TV and reading books was too hard. And I definitely couldn’t even think about leaving the house. What was I meant to do? So, after a suggestion from my boyfriend, I set up a blog.

Initially, I couldn’t do much with it because of my energy levels, but it was something to focus on. It is the best thing I’ve ever done.

I ended up going back to university to study Fashion Branding, and later Graphic Design at college. Now, with a degree and a diploma under my belt, I’m determined to make sure no young person feels like they’re dealing with health issues alone.

Since starting my blog, I’ve set up social media pages, built a community of more than 25,000, and now ensure they have a safe space to share. As a graphic designer, I use a mix of visuals and copy to translate how life with illness feels, particularly when it happens to you at a young age.

Jenny's graphic design work

In no way do I think that sickness is worse when it happens to a certain age group compared to another, but I do think the experience is different.

I have no idea who I would be without these conditions. I’ve grown up with them and I’ve been ill for my entire adult life. I don’t know what it’s like to work without illness, or date, or travel. I’ve been ill for every social interaction I’ve had as an adult.

That isn’t to say everything is awful with chronic illness and disability – absolutely not. But again, it’s different. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult, and yet sometimes it’s filled with unbridled joy because you truly appreciate everything.

I don’t view my life with chronic illness as entirely negative. I feel defined by these conditions, but that’s ok too.

Changing perceptions of disability through my blog

Illness and disability are complex and I think the topic is often over-simplified throughout society. You can’t assume someone that looks healthy actually is. You can’t assume someone that looks happy always is. You can’t assume someone that’s disabled can’t be happy.

Much of my work online tries to dismantle the idea that illness looks like one thing and health another.

I grew up thinking that disability looks a certain way, and since I didn’t fit that, it took me years to realise that I was disabled myself. It’s a dangerous narrative and so I’m trying to help challenge it.

Chronic illness can look like anything, happen to anyone, and everyone deserves to feel supported.

I’m committed to challenging the public perceptions of disability, sparking complex conversations and uniting disabled people and their loved ones together.

It can sometimes feel like there’s a long way to go, and over the last year, there’s been plenty of testing times for the disabled community.

It’s hard work trying to continually convince the world that you do indeed have value. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. Until it isn’t, I want to show up how and when I can.

My work with individuals and businesses

Since finishing my education, I now work on a freelance basis with individuals, brands and charities that share my values.

I particularly love working with businesses run by fellow disabled people as this community has the best ideas, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be a part of bringing those ideas to life.

Text reads ‘I am defined and limited by my chronic illness, but it is not the total sum of who I am’

I continue to run my social media spaces, and there’s always a place there for anyone looking for community – we are a nice bunch!

Last year, prompted by lockdown, I started my own clothing and homeware range designed with one particular message in mind – chronic illness affects your life as much as your body, and it’s time more people knew about it.

By Jenny McGibbon

Follow Jenny’s journey through her blog The Thing They Call Recovery and on Instagram, @thisthingtheycallrecovery

Also, check out Jenny’s prints and T-shirts by visiting her online shop.

More on Disability Horizons…

Zubee Kibria

I am a multi-skilled and motivated individual with a passion for inclusion and diversity having worked in the field of disability and equality for many years. I have over 10 years experience in media relations with a proven track record of commissioning articles with high-profile celebrities, bloggers and influencers. Engaging with celebrities is a particular skill I have and I am exceptionally creative at finding angles to interest them.
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