Although the term invisible disability has entered the vocabulary of far more people in recent years, there are still significant obstacles standing between equitable treatment and people with invisible disabilities. To mitigate these obstacles, this article will cover what invisible disabilities are, what types of discrimination people with invisible disabilities experience, and how to advocate for your rights and be a supportive ally to others.
What Are Invisible Disabilities?
An invisible disability is defined as one that is not immediately evident in a visible way, as opposed to disabilities that may offer visual cues. For example, if someone requires a wheelchair to aid in mobility, they may experience a visible disability. If that same person were to experience a depressive disorder, a brain injury, a social or emotional development disorder, or a chronic illness, they might have an invisible disability.
Invisible disabilities and chronic medical conditions can be experienced by anyone and can vary across a wide spectrum. Hidden disabilities can be largely mental or emotional, or they can be physical in nature. For example, visual or auditory disabilities affect the eyes and ears, respectively, and can be largely invisible to the public. That is because hearing difficulties may be accommodated with discreet hearing aids and vision loss can sometimes be at least partially treated with corrective lenses. However, their activity limitation is often still very real to those who experience these disabilities.
Types Of Invisible Disabilities
Physical disabilities are perhaps 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 other physical impairments do not require any sort of visible assistive device.
Physical disabilities that might not involve an assistive device may include chronic pain, degenerative disorders, neurological conditions, and cognitive impairment. To better understand invisible disabilities, it may help to understand how they affect people who live with them.
Below are some examples of various types of invisible disabilities:
Mental Disorders Or Conditions
Mental health disorders can encompass a diverse array of mental health challenges. From depression and other mood disorders to schizophrenia and personality disorders, mental health disorders are some of the most common invisible disabilities. They can affect emotional development and impair normal activities, even though mental impairments and challenges are not always evident to those around a person with such a condition.
Cognitive disabilities are those which affect an individual’s ability to function cognitively. Brain trauma, memory loss, and neurological disorders can be considered cognitive disabilities. Cognitive disabilities may affect a person’s ability to carry out normal activities of daily living. Alzheimer's disease and dementia are two examples of neurological conditions that are considered cognitive disabilities.
Neurodevelopmental Or Sensory Disabilities And Neurodivergence
Neurodivergence and neurodevelopmental disabilities may include autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sensory disorders. These disorders vary in severity and can affect motor skills, daily living, and a person’s ability to engage in certain activities.
Learning disorders and learning disabilities include dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. A learning disability can affect how a person learns and processes information.
Behavioral disorders are disorders that can have a profound impact on how a person behaves. Oppositional defiant disorder is among the most well-known behavioral disorders, but conduct disorder also falls under this umbrella. These disorders can have a significant effect on major life activities.
As seen in the examples above, the list of invisible disabilities is extensive. A growing number of people live with these disabilities and may experience difficulty deciding whether they should reveal their disability.
How Common Are Invisible Disabilities In The United States?
Common Invisible Disabilities
- Mental Disorders: Mental disorders can include mood and anxiety disorders, as well as dissociative identity disorder and personality disorders.
- Autoimmune Diseases: Autoimmune diseases are increasingly on the rise, but they are usually invisible to the naked eye. Autoimmune diseases include conditions like Crohn’s disease, Hashimoto’s disease, and type 1 diabetes. Part of the challenge with autoimmune diseases is they frequently do not attack the body in a way that is immediately evident.
- Cognitive Impairments: Cognitive impairments can include a diverse array of conditions, including developmental disorders, physical trauma, and brain injuries that present a mental challenge and substantially limit cognitive function.
- Deafness: People who are Deaf have frequently been mislabeled or misunderstood. Many people mistakenly assume that they can identify people who are Deaf or hard of 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 affect many individuals, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that as many as 1 in 59 children presents with symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
Discrimination And Ableism
People with hidden disabilities may experience discrimination far more than the general population. The discrimination faced by people with invisible disabilities might differ from that faced by those with visible disabilities. This may be 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 reveal their status as a person with invisible impairments. It is common for people to question the legitimacy of disabilities they cannot discern.
Ways To Fight The Effects Of Discrimination
Although the term self-care is sometimes used to mean indulging a desire, it often involves so much more than this. Effective self-care can be helpful for maintaining your mental health when encountering discrimination and ableism in response to an invisible disability.
Self-care can mean advocating for yourself by taking time off from work when your disability prohibits such activity. It can also 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.
Building A Community
Building community can also be essential to guard against discrimination. You may find community in online support groups, religious groups, and local community groups. While community may not erase the effects of discrimination and ableism, having a solid community may help ward against diminished self-esteem or feelings of shame in response to others’ behavior toward you.
Know Your Rights
When you know your rights—whether those rights are regional, state-wide, or federal—it may be easier to advocate for yourself. 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 to defend your rights.
Practical Steps To Protect The Mental Health Of Others With Disabilities
If you’re considering ways to advocate for people with disabilities, one of the first steps usually involves knowing their rights, which may require research on local, state, or federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This may help you defend against discrimination and ableism and step in to report any violations.
For example, if you know that a coworker is being unfairly treated because of a disability, you can report the party violating their rights. If a business lacks parking spaces for those with a disability, you can speak to your city or county’s parking authority. If you know that a fellow student in your school is not being offered the proper interventions and allowances required of public schools, you can go to the administration and make sure your concerns are heard. Schools should have strategies in place to identify students with medical conditions and offer ways to accommodate people with disabilities. This may include upgrading rooms, providing extra time for schoolwork, or offering a variety of other accommodations.
If you do not have an invisible disability or medical condition but are eager to learn how to support people with hidden 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. Being an ally may look different depending on the situation and setting, but there are several commonalities between various forms of allyship. These include using appropriate language and defending others’ rights.
Using appropriate language may require some research. It may be best to ask people directly what language they prefer, but understanding the preferred language of different groups may 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 people prefer can help create safe spaces for people with any disability.
Supporting people with disabilities can also look different from person to person and place to place. Support can mean engaging in community organizing and fundraisers in person or through social media. It can also mean providing monetary contributions to disability organizations and creating or implementing policies that effectively aid people with invisible disabilities.
Barriers In Accessibility For Professional Mental Health Support
There are several potential barriers to mental health support for people living with disabilities. These include financial barriers and a lack of energy or ability to attend sessions. Online therapy offers several benefits that help reduce these barriers. With virtual therapy, a person living with a disability can speak with a therapist through assistive technology and receive support in the comfort of their own home. They can connect with a therapist via phone, live chat, videoconferencing, or in-app messaging.
Research also supports online therapy for people who experience invisible and visible disabilities. For example, a study published in Psychological Services reported that people who received online therapy achieved clinically meaningful outcomes in fewer sessions than those who attended in-person sessions.
If you have an invisible disability or are eager to learn how to improve your understanding of invisible disabilities, it may help to speak with a licensed online therapist. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who understands the effects of both visible and invisible disabilities. Take the first step and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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