Non-visible disabilities make up the vast majority of disabilities worldwide, with chronic illnesses accounting for 96% of them, according to the World Health Organization. And still, most people only tend to count obvious, physical disabilities or people using mobility devices as the definition of “disability.”
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Most people with non-visible disabilities look “fine” to others, and as a result, we’re often dismissed or criticized by abled people who don’t understand the full scope and nature of disability. Often, we are disbelieved by non-disabled people who accuse us of faking or imagining our conditions. Non-disabled people, of course, have no direct lived experience with disability, yet many seem to overflow with judgment, unsolicited comments and misinformation. This is, of course, a product of ableism in our society.
A LANGUAGE CHOICE
I use the term “non-visible” disabilities, like many major organizations, to recognize legitimate but not easily visible disabilities. The phrase “invisible disabilities” can wrongly imply that the disability isn’t real, and is invisible and therefore imaginary.
The same goes for “hidden disabilities” that imply a person is ashamed or not being honest about their condition by concealing it. We want to avoid this stigma-laden language, when so many people with non-visible disabilitities are already being invalidated every day by the ableist society we live in.
In this blog, we’ll examine a list of common examples of non-visible disabilities that abled people rarely consider — things that truly impact the lives of those of us who live with debilitating medical conditions.
It’s important to keep in mind that any disability can be long term or short term, progressive or stable, constant or unpredictable, and treatable or untreatable. For many of us, there is no cure and treatment is often trial-and-error guess work, which makes the experience more daunting and complicated.
Here are just a few common non-visible disabilities people live and struggle with — and many people have multiple disabilities at once, thanks to new and related conditions that develop because of an earlier disability:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Asperger’s Syndrome
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
- Learning Disabilities
- Speech and Language Disability (e.g. laryngectomy, aphasia)
- Hearing Loss (*not all forms are obvious)
- Vision Loss (*also not always obvious)
- Cognitive Impairment
- traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- learning disability (e.g. dyslexia, dyscalculia)
- Respiratory Illness (e.g. asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Chronic Pain (e.g. back issues, bone disease, physical injuries)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)
- Mental Health Condition
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD / C-PTSD)
- eating disorder
- Sleep disorder
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Kidney failure
- Spinal Disorders
- Allergies (chemical, environmental, food, etc)
- Digestive System Disorders
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Celiac Disease
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Lyme Disease
- Repetitive Stress Injuries
- Rhuematoid Arthritis
- Trigeminal Neuralgia
- Balance and Dizziness Disorders
- Meniere’s Disease
- chronic dizziness
- vestibular balance disorder
The list goes on and on…
DOs AND DON’Ts
FOR INTERACTING WITH PEOPLE WITH NON-VISIBLE DISABILITIES
While there’s no formal etiquette, rely on common sense, good manners and the wishes of the disabled people you are speaking with. Here are some starter tips for how to interact with non-visibly disabled people:
- don’t judge a person based on their appearance – non-visible disability is all around you. Believe people when they share they are disabled and don’t pry for more information.
- do understand that non-visible disabilities are valid and serious, impacting people’s daily lives
- avoid judgmental and invalidating comments like “but you don’t look sick!” or “you look so good, nobody would ever know there was something wrong with you!” You have absolutely no idea what a person is experiencing and what they have lost and continue to lose due to disability
- do offer help IF a disabled person asks you for it and please follow their explicit instructions/request – never assume they need help or what kind of help someone else needs
- do not, EVER, touch a disabled person, their mobility device(s) or their service animal unless they clearly ask or permit you to — this cannot be emphasized enough!
- do learn about your friend, loved one or colleague’s disability so that you can understand. Don’t put the emotional burden on them to educate you and field your questions.
- don’t make comparisons about others you may know with the same condition. This is insensitive and inappropriate. Disability is very individual. No two disabiltiies are alike. Every journey is different. Don’t insult someone by dismissing their condition because you think someone you know is doing fine with theirs.
- don’t offer unsolicited advice or consolation (e.g. “at least” or “it could be worse” statements). This can be hurtful, invalidating and triggering. Remove remove toxic positivity from your speech. Resist the urge to sugarcoat the medical struggles of disabled people – it’s harmful, not helpful
- do realize that some people have fluctuating, chronic conditions that change day to day (and sometimes hour to hour). Just because we can do something today doesn’t mean we can do the same thing tomorrow. If you find that frustrating or confusing, imagine how we feel living it every day
- don’t ask strangers or acquaintances intrusive questions about their disability – this is private medical information that you are not entitled to and we are not here to be your live teachable moment, put on the spot and interrupted constantly because of inappropriate curiosity. If a disabled person chooses to disclose, for whatever reason, it is their choice. Usually we share with those closest to us, and even then, nobody is entitled to our personal medical details
- don’t watch and question people who are using accessible parking permits – many disabilities are not solely wheelchair related. You are not here to police disabled people in society. This is harassment. You wouldn’t chase a pregnant person demanding for proof of their baby bump, would you? (I should hope not!) Mind your business, friends.
- don’t ask questions about a disabled colleague’s workplace or study accommodations – that’s between them and their manager/instructor
- do treat all people with disabilities with respect and dignity. Please don’t use baby talk, condescending tones, pats of encouragement, belittling high fives or thumbs up, or extra loud volume – cringe!!
- do know that people who use mobility aids can choose different tools for different needs and times – not all people in wheelchairs are paralyzed; many alternate between canes, walkers and wheelchairs or other mobility aids. Don’t question or stare, for goodness sake!
- remind yourself that just because you can’t see any “evidence” of disability, it does indeed exist and a disabled person doesn’t owe you any explanation – it’s already hard enough! Many of us are very private and have every right to be.
- don’t use words like “handicapable” or “differently abled” or “super power” – “disability” is not a dirty word – it is a serious and real medical condition, and not something to be renamed because of abled people’s discomfort with disability.
BECOMING AN ALLY
The first steps to becoming non-ableist ally for people with disabilities include educating yourself by reading up, following disabled thought leaders and advocates, and diversifying the content and information you consume online. Changing the way we think and speak about disability is the goal. All disabilities differ, all are complex and all are entirely valid.
Please share your thoughts on or experiences with non-visible disability in the comments. It’s great to talk, exchange and learn from one another!
4 Ways to be an Ally to People with Invisible Disabilities
List of Invisible Disabilities by Disabled World
Psychology Today: Invisible Disabilities
Disability Unit UK: Living with Non-Visible Disability
Disclaimer: There may be occasional typos in my posts due to physical mobility issues. Perfection and humanity do not go together. I am a disabled person drawing from my own lived experience, my professional experience in the disability community at the provincial and national level, and lifelong learning through research, study and courses. What’s more important to me than perfection on this blog is being able to share and exchange stories with other disbaled people and to encourage non-disabled people to become allies.
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