>Invisible Disabilities Are More Common Than You Might Think
Invisible Disabilities Are More Common Than You Might Think
Updated October 21, 2021
Although the term “invisible disability” has entered the lexicon of far more people than it would have been apparent to even a few years ago, there are still significant obstacles standing between fair and equitable treatment and people with invisible disabilities. To help combat these obstacles, education and awareness efforts have increased to help the general population understand what invisible disabilities are, how they are inappropriately handled, and what steps can be taken to improve political, social, and even familial handling of invisible disabilities.
What Are Invisible Disabilities?
Invisible disabilities are most easily defined as disabilities that are not immediately evident to the naked eye. A definition of an invisible disability is often thrown in sharp relief by identifying what does not constitute an invisible disability. A visible disability might be paralysis; if someone requires a wheelchair to aid in mobility, it is easy to discern that a disability is present. If that same person were to experience a depressive disorder, they would possess a visible and invisible disability.
Invisible disabilities range in who and what they affect. Disabilities can be largely mental or emotional, or they can be concentrated entirely on the body. Invisible disabilities can affect the young and old and can be found in people from all ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. As is the case with visible disabilities, invisible disabilities do not take mercy on anyone population or people group.
Types Of Invisible Disabilities
To better understand invisible disabilities, it is important to understand what invisible disabilities are and how they impact people who live with them. Learn about the different types of invisible disabilities that are currently recognized by the health and medical community. We have identified the different types of invisible disabilities below.
Physical Disabilities. Physical disabilities are the largest category of invisible disabilities. It is a common misconception that most or even all physical disabilities are easily discernible. Some physical disabilities might necessitate a wheelchair or cane, but many others do not require any sort of visible assistive device. Physical disabilities might involve chronic pain, degenerative disorders, and more.
Mental Disorders Or Conditions. Mental disorders cover quite a lot of ground. From depression and other mood disorders to schizophrenia and personality disorders, mental disorders are the most common invisible disabilities currently recognized.
Cognitive Disabilities. Cognitive disabilities are disabilities affecting an individual’s ability to function cognitively. Brain trauma, memory loss, and neurological disorders would all fall under this umbrella.
Neurodevelopmental/Sensory Disabilities. Neurodevelopmental disabilities include Autism Spectrum Disorder and sensory disorders. These disorders range in severity.
Learning Disorders. Learning disorders include ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and more. These disorders affect how a person learns and processes information, with symptoms that typically include physical changes and compulsions, including tics and “stims,” or stimulatory behaviors.
Behavioral Disorder Behavioral disorders are disorders that have a profound impact on how a person behaves. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is among the most well-known behavioral disorders, but Conduct Disorder and other behavioral disorders fall under this umbrella.
As you can see, the list of invisible disabilities is substantial. Countless people live with these disabilities and struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy or determine when or if to disclose their state as a person with a disability.
How Are Common Invisible Disabilities In The United States?
This is one of the most significant issues that arise about invisible disabilities. Because they are invisible, they are difficult to measure, and people may be hesitant to disclose their disability status. As it stands, it is estimated that as many as 30% of the adults in the United States are affected by a disability and that as much as 60% of those disabilities are invisible.
Common Invisible Disabilities
Mental Disorders. Mental disorders can include mood and anxiety disorders, as well as Dissociative Identity Disorder and personality disorders.
Autoimmune Disorders. Autoimmune disorders are increasingly on the rise, but they are usually invisible to the naked eye. Autoimmune disorders include (but are not limited to) conditions like Crohn’s disease, Hashimoto’s, and even Type 1 diabetes. Autoimmune disorders frequently do not attack the body in a way that is immediately evident and typically fall under the umbrella of “invisible.”
Cognitive Impairments. Cognitive impairments can include a significant swath of impairments and disabilities, ranging from developmental disorders to physical trauma and brain injury.
Deafness. Deaf people have frequently been mislabeled or misunderstood as being people with invisible disabilities. Many mistakenly assume that they can identify people who are hard of hearing or those without hearing due to sign language usage or a visible earpiece, but this is far from the case. Many people who are hard of hearing have learned to lip-read and can function without implements typically associated with being deaf.
Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Autism Spectrum Disorder and the accompanying sensory disorders are becoming increasingly common, with some estimates suggesting that as many as one in 59 children presents with the disorder’s symptoms.
Discrimination, Ableism, And Invisible Disabilities
People with disabilities as whole experience discrimination far more than the general population. The discrimination faced by people with invisible disabilities might differ from that of people with disabilities as a whole. This is due, in part, to the “invisible” nature of these disabilities. People may be unwilling to accommodate disabilities they cannot see or may change their attitudes toward friends, employees, and family members who disclose their status as a disabled person.
Practical Steps For Protecting Your Health While Up Against Discrimination And Ableism
Although the term has become somewhat skewed, effective self-care is essential for protecting your mental health when encountering discrimination and ableism in response to your invisible disability. While self-care has been reduced to periodically going out and having a spa day, self-care is far more than simply indulging a desire to feel calm or relaxed. Instead, self-care can mean standing up for yourself by taking time from work when your disability prohibits working. Self-care can mean advocating for your rights with an employer or school. Self-care can even simply mean turning down requests to go out in favor of eating a nourishing meal and getting plenty of sleep. Self-care frequently looks a lot like self-parenting and can be one of the best ways to guard against the ill effects of discrimination.
Building community is also essential to guard against discrimination. Although you may not be able to find community in the spaces responsible for the discrimination you are up against, you can find community in religious services, online support groups, and even local community groups based on shared interests or shared beliefs. While community cannot effectively erase the effects of discrimination and ableism, having a solid community can help ward against diminished self-esteem or persistent feelings of shame and worthlessness in response to others’ behavior toward and treatment of you.
Know your rights. When you know your rights—whether those rights are regional, state-wide, or federal—it is far more difficult to mistreat and inappropriately handle your disability. Knowing what your employer is required to offer you, knowing what your school is required to provide, or even knowing what local law enforcement considers harassment or a hate crime can all arm you with the confidence and assurance that you have rights and protections, which will allow you to act accordingly.
Practical Steps To Protect The Mental Health Of Others With Invisible Disabilities
If you, yourself, do not have an invisible disability, but you are eager to learn how to be an ally to people with invisible disabilities, there are a few simple but important ways you can be an ally. An ally is someone who stands up for the rights of others and someone willing to put themselves in uncomfortable situations in the pursuit of justice. Being an ally will look different depending on the situation and setting, but there are several commonalities between all forms of allyship. These include knowing others’ rights, using appropriate language, and supporting people with invisible disabilities.
The first, knowing others’ rights, simply requires research. Know any local, state, or federal laws that protect against discrimination and ableism, and step in or report any violations of those protections. If you know that a coworker, for instance, is being unfairly treated as a result of their disability, report the party perpetrating the abuse. If you know that a fellow student pupil in your school is not being offered the proper interventions and allowances required of public schools, go to the administration and make sure your concerns are heard and heeded.
Using appropriate language can also require some research. It’s always best to ask people directly what language they prefer, but having an understanding of appropriate language can help. Some people, for instance, prefer the term “hard of hearing,” while others prefer the term “deaf.” Some people prefer people-first language (as in, a “person with depression”) while others prefer identity-first language (as in, an “autistic person”). Knowing which words and phrases disabled people prefer can help create safe spaces for people with disabilities and can help you and others feel more at ease as you navigate your education.
Supporting people with disabilities can also look extremely different from person to person and place to place. Support can mean community organizing and fundraisers. Support can mean monetary offerings to disability organizations. Support can also mean creating or implementing policies that effectively aid people with invisible disabilities.
Invisible Disabilities In The World Today
Invisible disabilities afflict people worldwide, and discrimination poses a very real threat to the mental and physical health of people with invisible disabilities. Efforts to improve awareness, communication, and understanding surrounding invisible disabilities are the most important forms of standing for and aiding with improvements to support systems and protections. Suppose you have an invisible disability or are eager to learn how to overcome your own prejudice or misunderstandings regarding invisible disabilities. In that case, BetterHelp can help walk you through some of the finer points of disabilities, how they impact people, and how they can be better supported.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Are Considered Invisible Disabilities?
According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, invisible disabilities are considered any type of disability that is not easily recognized or viewed by those around the individual with the disability. Although chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia are commonly identified as invisible disabilities, mental health disorders and neurodevelopment disorders like Autism Spectrum Disorder also qualify. In truth, the list of invisible disabilities is extensive and includes mental disorders and conditions, most autoimmune disorders, chronic illnesses, cognitive decline, and more.
What Percentage Of Americans Have An Invisible Disability?
Although the precise number is difficult to ascertain, some estimates have suggested that as much as 10-30% of the US population is affected by an invisible disability. These people are more likely to be people with chronic illness and include people with cognitive, developmental, and mental impairments. Invisible disabilities are extremely common among people with disabilities. The Invisible Disabilities Association suggests that, of the reported 26 million Americans living with disabilities, only 7 million have disabilities that require visible assistive devices. This means that, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association, a large portion of people with disabilities have disabilities that are not readily visible.
What Should You Not Say To Someone With Invisible Disabilities?
The most common phrase said to people with disabilities is some variation of the phrase, “But you look fine!” Although many people who say this are perfectly well-meaning, intending to compliment the appearance or perceived ability to “handle” a disability, the phrase is extremely dismissive. It may even suggest to the individual with the disability that they are not sick enough or not trustworthy enough to be relied upon. Organizations such as the Invisible Disabilities Association have a wealth of literature on language, sensitivity, and consideration regarding people with invisible disabilities.
What Do You Say To Someone With An Invisible Illness?
First, it is essential to ascertain whether or not you need to say anything at all. While some people with disabilities are more than happy to discuss their condition and experiences, others are extremely uncomfortable discussing them. Unless you are certain that addressing the disability is essential, it is best to respect others’ privacy and refrain from discussing their condition altogether. Resources such as the Invisible Disabilities Association can explain why simply asking about a disability is problematic. Still, it is important to understand that disabilities are protected. You cannot simply address someone with a disability—invisible or otherwise—regarding their disability, whether you are demanding “proof” of that disability or asking probing, personal questions about their disability.
If you have been given the go-ahead to speak to someone about their disability, or you are in a situation that requires you to stand up for or encourage the person with a disability, there is not a single script you should follow, or a specific phrase you should utter. Instead, make sure you view the person with respect and consideration, and make sure you are adhering to their right to privacy. Someone with an invisible illness may appreciate one of the following phrases:
“I believe you.”
“I see you.”
“Let me know if you need anything.”
“Let me know if you need any help.”
“How can I better support you?”
People with invisible disabilities are not helpless children, nor are they inspirational figures who need your awe. Instead, people with invisible disabilities are simply people. They can benefit from knowing that their friends, family members, and coworkers are not constantly second-guessing them and are ready and willing to offer a helping hand should the need arise. Resources for appropriate and helpful conversation can be found through disability organizations such as the Invisible Disabilities Association.
How Can We Help People With Invisible Disabilities?
The best way to help people with invisible disabilities is to be an ally. Allyship looks different in different situations. When students have learning disabilities, allies make sure those students have access to additional services and resources in school. In the workplace, an ally might make sure their coworker has plenty of time to complete tasks or extra space to do any movements or stretches that can help ease symptoms of pain and discomfort. At home, it can mean taking a child’s assertion that they cannot attend school or make it to the dinner table at face value, instead of insisting that they “look fine”.
In a broader context, people with invisible disabilities can be helped by changing public policy, increasing education and awareness, and acting as an ally in any way that you can. Donating to invisible disability associations (including the Invisible Disabilities Association) can help support education and awareness campaigns to improve public awareness and perception of invisible disabilities.
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