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

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

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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

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

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