Blog: Invisible Disabilities – You don’t have to see it to believe it
Invisible disabilities are “physical, mental or neurological conditions that are not visible from the outside” which can impact in varying degrees a person’s ability to work, live and play.
By Amanda Labonte
When people discuss disabilities, they are often referring to visible physical characteristics that people may experience or be part of who they are. For example, when we think of someone who needs to use a parking placard for persons with disabilities, often the person who comes to mind is someone with mobility challenges who might need a walker, wheelchair, or cane to help get around.
For folks who have invisible disabilities, the challenge lies not only in the disability itself, but in the invisibility of it.
What are Invisible Disabilities?
As defined by the Invisible Disabilities Association, “an invisible disability is a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.”
What might this look like?
Some of the symptoms can be things like chronic or debilitating pain, brain injuries, cognitive dysfunction, or chronic fatigue. (1) This can include dietary struggles, severe allergies, and/or mental health challenges. They vary between people, can be difficult to diagnose and are not obvious to other people. (1) Further, the symptoms of disability can vary in and of themselves, meaning people can have ‘good’ days and bad days. (2) These challenges can impact in varying degrees peoples’ ability to work, live and play.
Why does this matter?
In a society where work equates to economic stability, having an invisible disability can and often is viewed through a discriminatory lens. Ableism, is an oppressive social construction, which views people with disabilities as deviating from the ‘norm.’ (3) What’s worse is the misperceived conception that in a “capitalist society – if you have no value in the economy, you have no value as a person” (p. 285). Society diminishes the social value and economic contributions of folks with disabilities through this lens. Further, this can lead to microaggressions which take the form of invasive questions, inappropriate jokes, and exclusion (2) intended to make the person with a disability feel less than. The hidden nature of invisible disabilities can be even more challenging as people who are experiencing them can be left trying to repeatedly explain themselves and feeling they are not believed. Further, symptoms that can lead to missed days of work can cause stress and loss of employment. The stigma of having to explain a particular disability can prevent employees from seeking much-needed accommodations at work. (2)
How can you reduce stigma?
Use a strengths-based approach. What does that mean? It means focusing on all the strengths a person has versus focusing on the potential challenges their disability might bring. For example, someone might have great wit and determination, but they might also be in excruciating pain. The two things can and do co-exist. (2) As someone not experiencing a disability, be open, curious, and accepting but not invasive. Be proactive and offer support, provide support when asked, but in both cases do not treat the person like they are fragile or not a contributing, valuable member of society. Persons with disabilities, visible or invisible, contribute a great deal to our society and should be treated with respect and value.
Remember, anyone can become disabled, an illness, an injury or an allergy can change how you navigate the world. You don’t have to see it to believe it.
To learn more and hear the voices of people who have invisible disabilities please watch the following videos:
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- Invisible Disabilities Association. (n.d.). in·vis·i·ble dis·a·bil·i·ty. https://invisibledisabilities.org/what-is-an-invisible-disability/
- Canadian Equity Counselling. (2021, January 8). Invisible disabilities in the workplace. https://canadianequality.ca/invisible-disabilities-in-the-workplace/
- Mullaly, B. & West, J. (2010). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege: A critical approach to anti-oppressive and anti-privilege theory and practice 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press.