Did you know that about 10% of Americans live with some form of invisible disability?
When we think about disabilities we often only think about things that we can see. The immediate thought (and the one that’s representative of disabilities, adorning disabled parking signs and other items intended for people with disabilities) is the wheelchair.
While there aren’t enough resources devoted to people with various visible disabilities as is, there are fewer for people with invisible illnesses or disabilities. Not enough people are aware, and many people look down on those who have these invisible conditions because they aren’t obvious.
For example, it’s common to pass judgment on people who use the power scooters in stores when they don’t “look disabled”. In reality, this person may be dealing with pain that you can’t see.
We want to provide some education on the matter. Keep reading to learn more about invisible disabilities.
What Is An Invisible Disability?
As the name suggests, an invisible disability is one that you can’t see.
There are several disabilities that we consider obvious. The first is, as mentioned, anything requiring a wheelchair. The disability has a clear marker that we can identify and place into the “disability” category in our brains.
This also includes things that are often given disability accommodations. Blindness and deafness, while not technically visible, usually aren’t considered invisible illnesses or disabilities. We identify them as disabilities and people have visual markers for them.
Certain mental conditions are also visible disabilities. Someone has to be “obviously impaired” for them to fit into this category. Not everyone with some form of impairment considers themselves disabled.
Invisible disabilities are disabilities that don’t have those obvious markers. Often people aren’t considered “disabled enough” when they have them, even if they’re debilitating.
People with invisible disabilities may have trouble getting through their day to day lives without accommodations despite them appearing to be able-bodied.
What Are The Types of Invisible Disabilities?
Invisible disabilities come in many forms. Not all of them are physical, but they might be, even without the visual element. Some people have different kinds of internal physical health problems that don’t present themselves with obvious external signs but still impact their lives and productivity levels.
Other people have psychological conditions that handicap them in some way. Many mental illnesses, when they’re bad enough, can cause a huge amount of disruption in the lives of those who are trying to manage them. Some of them would be accepted as invisible illnesses (such as schizophrenia) because we have a stigma associated with them, while others are still considered not disabling enough.
Basically, invisible illnesses come in many forms. There’s no one “right” invisible illness and you can’t make assumptions about someone’s health without knowing the full story.
Invisible disabilities may be managed through medication, but generally speaking, the disability is expected to be permanent. The person with the disability deals with physical or psychological pain that can impact their lives.
Examples of Invisible Disabilities
There are a countless number of illnesses and disabilities that are considered invisible or hidden. There are a few common ones that you can keep in mind.
Different mental illnesses, even those that we consider common, are considered invisible disabilities if they’re serious enough. Anxiety and depression are invisible disabilities if they’re long-term. So are bipolar disorder, trauma-related disorders (like borderline personality disorder and PTSD), attention deficit disorder, and more.
Those with traumatic brain injuries may not seem disabled at first glance. If their injury impairs them, they have an invisible disability.
Some physical disabilities are invisible as well. Cystic fibrosis, a long-term disease of the lungs, is an invisible illness. Many people aren’t aware of their friends with cystic fibrosis because they look “healthy” until the condition flares up.
Diabetes can also be considered an invisible disability. It requires constant medication management and people with diabetes may need accommodations in the workplace (such as space and time for blood sugar checks and insulin injections).
There are so many conditions that are considered invisible disabilities, and too many people are unaware of them.
Invisible Disabilities In The Workplace
People with invisible disabilities often face discrimination in the workplace. While there have to be accommodations in place for those with visible disabilities, invisible disabilities may be ignored unless they’re brought up.
People may pretend to not have an invisible disability during job interviews or at work to avoid hiring discrimination, and they may not know that they have legal protections against this discrimination if they don’t know that their condition is considered a disability.
Some employers don’t know how to accommodate people with invisible disabilities, so they don’t. These people may not know how to ask, or what to ask for. There isn’t enough information online to support them.
Some people are incapable of working due to their disability and may qualify for disability benefits without knowing it. If this sounds like it might apply to you, check out HeardandSmith.com for more information on receiving disability benefits.
How to Be More Understanding and Supportive
If you’re someone who’s in contact with someone who tells you that they have an invisible disability, or even if you suspect it, it’s important to be supportive. Too many people ignore these disabilities or pretend that they aren’t “real”, which is invalidating to the people who are managing them.
Depending on your situation, there are a few things that you can do to be more accepting.
Don’t Gatekeep Things Made for People With Disabilities
How do you feel when you see someone using the larger stalls in the public restrooms or the private restroom made for people with disabilities? Do you automatically pass judgment, or do you let them be?
The knee-jerk reaction for many people is judgment. Why is that person in there if they aren’t on crutches or in a wheelchair or scooter? Why are they taking up that space when they don’t need it?
The first thing that you should do is mind your business. It doesn’t matter why this person is using the stall. At the end of the day, they felt the need to use it. Even if they don’t have a disability, you don’t know about their private life.
The second thing that you can do is consider other options. What if this person has claustrophobia that results in extreme anxiety and they can’t handle the small spaces in the other stalls? What if they need the handrail present in most of these larger stalls due to joint pain, or instability from a traumatic brain injury?
If they’re in a private lockable bathroom, it’s possible that they want a space to take their medication in private. They may also need a few moments of quiet to calm down from a moment where PTSD takes over.
Many people also feel this urge to gatekeep with scooters. If someone can walk back to their car, why do they need one? Some people can walk for short distances but not long ones. Others have extreme dizziness when they stand or walk.
In short, you don’t know this person. Keep your opinions to yourself.
Provide Accessible Tools Even When There’s No “Obvious” Disability
If you’re an employer, you’re required to have accessibility options for employees and customers. If an employee asks you for accommodation, you need to comply, even if you don’t understand it.
So what can you do?
It depends on your business and the person who’s asking. Someone with anxiety may ask for a more private space, like a corner cubicle. They may also ask to not have a customer-facing role. People with diabetes may ask for a few minutes per day to manage their medication in a quiet space.
There are plenty of ways to accommodate people who have different needs.
Don’t Doubt People Who Claim to Have a Disability
When someone tells you that they have an invisible disability, don’t ask questions. If you’re an employer, you are allowed to ask for some form of documentation that can help you best-accommodate the employee, but it should stop there.
If you’re a friend or acquaintance, though, there’s no need to doubt or ask questions. It doesn’t affect your life, even if this person happens to be lying. It does more harm to that person to invalidate them than it would do to you if they were misleading you.
Invisible Disabilities Are Legitimate Disabilities
Having an invisible disability is tough. Between doubt, accommodations, and stigma, there are plenty of hurdles that can make someone’s life harder.
It’s your job to educate yourself so you don’t alienate anyone who’s suffering in ways that you can’t see.
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