Invisible Disabilities: How Common Are They?

Updated October 3, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 (ID). To help combat these obstacles and to celebrate Minority Mental Health Month, this article will cover education and awareness efforts have increased to help the general population understand what IDs 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?

IDs are most easily defined as disabilities that are not immediately evident to the naked eye or in a visible way. One kind of definition for an invisible disability is given by identifying what other conditions do not constitute an invisible disability. An easy way to identify a visible disability is to think about the visual cues it includes. For example, 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, other types of mental illnesses, brain injuries, social or emotional development disorders, or a chronic illness, they would possess an invisible disability.

IDs and chronic medical conditions live in anyone and can vary across a wide spectrum. Hidden disabilities can be largely mental or emotional, or they can be concentrated entirely on the body. For example, visual or auditory disabilities only affect the eyes and ears and can be largely invisible. That’s because hearing difficulties may be accommodated with discreet hearing aids and vision loss can sometimes be at least partially treated with corrective lenses. While these individuals may use a barely noticeable hearing aid, or hearing aids, to accommodate their disability, their hearing difficulties and activity limitation is still very real. The same goes for those who wear glasses to accommodate visual disabilities.

Furthermore, 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, IDs do not take mercy on anyone population or people group.A hidden disability can affect anyone and you may not even know they are affected.

Types Of Disabilities

Physical Disabilities. Physical disabilities are the largest category of IDs. 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 other physical or mental impairments do not require any sort of visible assistive device. However, it is possible to have a largely invisible disability with an assistive device, like a hearing aid. Such an impairment or physical disability that might not involve an assistive device though might be a disability includes chronic pain, degenerative disorders, any neurological condition, and cognitive ability impairment. To better understand IDs, it is important to understand what invisible disabilities are and how they impact people who live with them. Learn about the different types of physical and mental impairment and medical conditions that are currently recognized by the health and medical community. We have identified other examples IDs below:

  • 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. Such an impairment may affect emotional development and impair normal activities, even though mental impairments and mental challenges are not visible to the average onlooker.
  • 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. Cognitive disabilities can affect a person’s ability to complete normal activities and daily living. Alzheimer's disease and dementia are just a few examples of neurological conditions that are considered cognitive disabilities.
  • Neurodevelopmental/Sensory Disabilities. Neurodevelopmental disabilities include Autism Spectrum Disorder and sensory disorders. These disorders range in severity. These disabilities can affect motor skills, daily living, and cause activity limitations.
  • Learning Disorders. Learning disorders and learning disabilities 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, sitting problems, ” 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. These disorders can have a large impact on major life activities.

As you can see, the list of IDs is substantial. A growing number of 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 Common Are They In The United States?

My Disability Is Affecting My Daily Life. What Can I Do?

This is one of the most significant issues that arise about IDs. 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. The difficulty with autoimmune disorders is they 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 other invisible disabilities, ranging from developmental disorders to physical trauma and brain injury that presents a mental challenge and substantially limits cognitive function.
  • Deafness. Deaf people have frequently been mislabeled or misunderstood as being people with IDs. 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. This means their disability or medical condition may not be immediately apparent.
  • 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 And Ableism

People with hidden disabilities and chronic illnesses as whole experience discrimination far more than the general population. The discrimination faced by people with invisible disabilities might differ from those with disabilities as a whole. This is due, in part, to the “invisible” nature of a hidden disability. 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 with invisible impairments.

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, especially for those with chronic illnesses. 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 A Community

Building community is also essential to guard against discrimination in the disabled world. 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 or chronic pain. 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 (including statements made on social media) 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 Disabilities

The first, knowing others’ rights, simply requires research. Know any local, state, or federal laws, such as the disabilities act, that protect against discrimination and ableism, and step in or report any violations of those protections in the disabled world. If you know that a coworker, for instance, is being unfairly treated as a result of their disability or chronic pain, report the party perpetrating the abuse. If a business lacks accessible parking spaces, speak to your city or county’s parking authority. 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. School boards may also be able to help. Schools should have strategies in place to identify students with medical conditions (ex. Implemented screening tests) and offer ways to accommodate persons with disabilities. This may include upgrading rooms to make them accessible spaces, providing extra time for school work, or a variety of other accommodations.

If you, yourself, do not have an invisible disability or medical condition, but you are eager to learn how to be an ally to people with IDs, 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 or chronic medical conditions that aren’t obvious to the naked eye.

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 someone with an invisible illness and can help you and others feel more at ease as you navigate your education regarding disabled individuals and disabilities.

Supporting people with disabilities can also look extremely different from person to person and place to place. Support can mean community organizing and fundraisers in-person or through social media. Support can mean monetary offerings to disability organizations. Support can also mean creating or implementing policies that effectively aid people with 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 IDs. Efforts to improve awareness, communication, and understanding surrounding IDs 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.

BetterHelp Can Help You Overcome

BetterHelp can also be a useful tool for those with invisible disabilities that affect mental health. Mental illnesses can be treated by knowledgeable and licensed BetterHelp online therapists. With online therapy you can learn how to confront the pain of societal stigmas, manage mental illnesses, and any other difficulty you may be facing mentally or emotionally.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are examples of IDs?

What are the most common IDs?

What is the great invisible disability?

What are three symptoms of an invisible disability?

What are 2 hidden disabilities?

What are the 6 types of disabilities?

What is visible and IDs?

Is autism an invisible disability?

What are the 4 types of disability?

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