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Invisible Disabilities

blue background with a drawing of a person in white and their shadow is a line drawing of a wheelchair in light blue. 

What is an invisible disability?

According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, "an invisible disability is a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities." Invisible disabilities are often times referred to as hidden disabilities.

DisabilityIN: cautions folks about the use of those terms and suggests one that does not put the focus on the person:

  • "Invisible disability": For some people with disabilities, this term is offensive. It suggests the person is not visible or that you cannot discern that a person has a disability, which is not always true. The same is true for "non-visible disability". Non-apparent disabilities may become apparent, depending on the type of disability.
  • "Hidden disability": This implies that the person with the disability is purposefully withholding this information. There is a difference between choosing to not self-disclose a disability versus actively hiding it.
  • "Non-apparent disability": This is the terminology Disability:IN uses and recommends. It implies the disability is just that – non-apparent and does not imply any negative connotation. We believe disability is a strength and it does not matter what type of disability someone has.

How someone looks does not always describe how they feel

Invisible Disabilities Association "does not maintain a list of specific illnesses and diagnoses that are considered invisible disabilities." Instead, they classify non-apparent disabilities as "such symptoms as debilitating fatigue, pain, cognitive dysfunctions, mental disorders, as well as hearing and eyesight impairments, and more." Some types of non-apparent disabilities include the following:

Let’s Get Inclusive About Non-apparent Disabilities

  • Don’t expect people to disclose or prove their invisible illness or disability
    Everyone is entitled to choose whether or not to disclose their disability or chronic illness.

  • blue background with a wide line drawing of a wheel chair and person sitting in it.This is the International Symbol of Access. Not exactly inclusive for people with disabilities that do not use a wheelchair. "People with invisible disabilities have faced judging looks and even verbal abuse for using spaces they’re entitled to use because onlookers have assumed that they don’t have a disability." In your workplace, suggest adding a sign that reads “All disabilities are not visible” to all disabled designated spaces.
  • Review your accessibility standards
    Make sure all digital information and communication technology is accessible and meets the WCAG 2.2 AA standards.
  • Broaden your understanding
    Build your awareness of non-apparent disabilities, symptoms, and what it's like to live with a non-apparent disability. Then “Ask yourself, how might physical or social barriers restrict someone with that invisible disability?”
  • What to do if you say the wrong thing
    • Don’t make a big deal out of it or cause a scene.
      Dwelling on it just makes it more awkward and uncomfortable for both parties. And don't make the other person feel like it's their job to make you feel better.
    • Equally, don’t downplay it to avoid the discomfort.
      Yes, it can be embarrassing to say something inappropriate. but don't try to brush it off. That gives the impression that you are trying to "brush off" the person's disability because it makes YOU uncomfortable.
    • Accept responsibility and commit to learning from it.
      Apologize, admit that you are still learning, and ask the person how you could have handled the situation better. "If you were called out but aren’t sure why, acknowledge it and ask for help."
  • Don’t benchmark everyone using neurotypical standards
    For example, "Would you or others you know disapprove of an interview candidate who made limited eye contact? People with autism often find eye contact uncomfortable and might avoid it."
  • Believe people when they tell you about their pain
    For some disabilities, symptoms can come and go so a person might be able to do certain things one day but not another.
    • Acknowledge that the pain is real. For example, “I’m sorry to hear that. That sounds hard to deal with.”
    • Check what they need from you. There may be nothing you can do. But it’s good to check that you’re offering the support they need.

Resources

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
~ friend of DubBot, A11Y practitioner in higher ed