An invisible disability is not a Marvel Universe superhero power, although many people with invisible disabilities feel pretty unseen by the rest of the population. It is a term used to describe the millions of people with disabilities that are not readily apparent to others.
A vast array of disabilities can fall under this category, including chronic illness, autism, ADHD and autoimmune diseases. Depression, the most prevalent disability in the U.S., is an invisible disability. Importantly, the same disability or condition can be fully apparent in one person and invisible in others.
That person your rude uncle scoffs at when they park in an accessible parking spot and then walk into a store – they have an invisible disability.
People with invisible disabilities can encounter different struggles than their peers with more visible disabilities. Yes, it can be much easier to mask and appear to fit in. With an invisible disability, you may be able to avoid some of the stigmas and ridiculously low expectations that people with visible disabilities deal with.
At least for a while.
Having an invisible disability means you may be able to hide your disability, but it can also mean that it’s much harder to get the accommodations and support you need. You can end up endlessly explaining and justifying yourself. Some people won’t believe you. Others will be dismissive. Others who saw you as full and wholly human will start seeing you as inferior or broken.
Invisible disabilities are also often at the fringe of advocacy and accessibility campaigns. We can clearly see the struggle of a person in a wheelchair trying to enter a building without a ramp. The barriers to people with invisible disabilities are harder to see, harder for nondisabled folks to grasp, and thus left out of the conversation. Accommodations like places to sit and rest or reduced sensory stimulation (such as fluorescent lights, strong scents, or background noise and music) are rarely considered as necessary for full access.
There is a rampant misperception that there’s widespread fraud around disabilities and people are frequently falsely claiming to have disabilities that they don’t have. In reality, such misrepresentation is extremely rare. The stigma and discrimination faced by people with disabilities far outweigh any mythical “advantages” afforded to them.
Disability is not an absolute. There is a lot of subjectivity about what we consider a disability, and most of us will move in and out of disability throughout our lifetimes. Thus, it’s in the interest of everyone to dismantle bias around disability, including invisible disabilities.
There are some easy steps to take. Don’t make assumptions about a person’s disability based on appearance. If someone tells you they have a disability, believe them. Never challenge or criticize someone for using accommodations. Avoid ableist microaggressions such as, “you don’t look like you have a disability” or “you are too pretty to be disabled” or “but you seem normal.”
If normal even exists, disability is normal. Over 61 million American adults with disabilities bear witness.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.