Overcoming the stigmas associated with invisible disabilities

Many people could assume when hearing the word disability is that it refers to someone on a wheelchair, or someone that is blind. However, something that isn’t often talked about enough is invisible disabilities. “Invisible disabilities” is an umbrella term that is used to describe a wide range of disabilities that aren’t immediately visible. They are the same as any other disability in that it creates difficulties for the person that has it. However, as they aren’t visibly apparent, it can be hard for others to understand the difficulties that someone with an invisible disability can face. This article discusses invisible disabilities in more detail, the impact it has on the people that have them, and the stigma that is associated with this type of disability.

Many invisible disabilities affect people on a daily basis. For example, chronic fatigue syndrome causes persistent tiredness and fatigue, and generalized anxiety disorder can mean that a person finds it hard to concentrate in even the most basic of tasks. Other invisible disabilities include sleeping disorders and epilepsy. It is clear that all of these provide several challenges to the person that has them, however these challenges sometimes aren’t seen by other people. For example, someone with generalized anxiety disorder may find it hard to go to sleep and have constant headaches on a daily basis but they may appear completely fine whenever you see them. It is worth noting that although people with invisible disabilities struggle differently to those with physical disabilities, these struggles can still take a toll on their mental health and psychological wellbeing.

Unfortunately, a lot of stigma is associated with invisible disabilities. Why is this? One reason, and arguably the reason that we need to be aware about is the non-visible nature of these disabilities. Living with an invisible disability means that you can appear fine on the outside, so people make the misguided assumption that if the disability cannot be seen, then it shouldn’t be taken seriously. This is why some people don’t tell others about their invisible disability due to fear that their disability may be seen as invalid and that they are just faking everything. Furthermore, what complicates things further is that some invisible disabilities can vary in severity. A good example would be someone with a mental health condition. Someone with a mental health condition can have weeks where things go perfectly fine, as well as weeks where every day is a struggle, and other people can struggle to understand why every day is so different.  Unfortunately, discrimination against people with an invisible disability can sometimes happen in the workplace. Employers are usually comfortable with accommodating employees with visible disabilities as these are disabilities that can be seen, however the same is not always true for employees with invisible disabilities.

We need to ask the question, how can we raise awareness and be more understanding of invisible disabilities in particular? First of all, it is crucial to realise that it is quite common and that it spans a wide range of symptoms. As some people with invisible disabilities don’t open up about their disability, it is easy to think that invisible disabilities are rare, whereas that is not the case. However, the thing in which I think is the most important to understand is that invisible disabilities are disabilities in their own right and should be treated as such. Invisible disabilities shouldn’t be seen differently to visible disabilities just because one can be seen and one can’t, as either way, it causes difficulties to the person that has it. If an employer or a university department can make reasonable adjustments for people with visible disabilities, then they should definitely be able to do the same for people with invisible disabilities.

If you are someone that currently has an invisible disability of any sort then it is not something to be ashamed about and it certainly does not make you any less of a person. It cannot be underestimated that students with invisible disabilities have gained valuable skills such as adaptability and resilience by being able to not give up despite the limitations that they may face, and that is something that is highly commendable.

Despite the stigma that may come with invisible disabilities, there are still several methods of support that are available to university students for a wide range of invisible disabilities, and getting in contact with the Disability Services department at your university can potentially be very useful. Moreover, being able to share and open up about your experiences with an invisible disability can go a long way in educating others and overcoming the stereotype that currently exists in society. It is paramount that we move beyond the stigma that currently exists, and not make judgements about someone purely from what you see on the outside.

I originally wrote this blog post for Student Minds.

29 thoughts on “Overcoming the stigmas associated with invisible disabilities

  1. This is so true! Invisible disabilities can be so much harder. Slowly it seems to be getting more of a voice in media and more awareness is being spread. Posts like these are great ways to spread awareness as well. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Molina! Thank you very much for your comment. I certainly agree that more awareness is being spread by the day, but some stigma still exists! Feel free to share this post to whoever it may be relevant to 🙂


  2. This is a really thought provoking post. Sad to say BUT the stigma related to these disabilities in part is going to have a lot to do with the minority who jump on the bandwagon…especially I suppose in the workforce. I know a couple of people who would be willing to spoil it for those who actually do suffer.

    Also…my sleep pattern is DREADFUL. I am an insomniac…but I would feel guilty going into work and raising it as a reason my work is off or as a reason to go home sick etc when I know that a colleague of mine is sleep deprived because she has a diabetic son she has to monitor and insulin all through the night.

    It’s a tough subject to tackle this is…so I applaud you for giving your thoughts and writing so passionately. Great post.


    1. Hi! I do agree that some of the causes of the stigma that exists is due to people speaking out in the workplace and then people thinking that they are making things up as these disabilities aren’t visible. The main thing is that as these aren’t visible its harder for others to fully understand what one may be going through on a day to day basis. Thank you for your comment!!


  3. My university was really proactive in helping students with disability, whether visible or not. I worked at a student helper for a student with dyslexia and one with autism


    1. I certainly agree that chronic illness is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. I wish you all the best in raising awareness of chronic illness, it is certainly very important to raise awareness about it!


  4. This is such an important post. So many people suffer with disabilities in lots of forms but some people can be so closed off to this and don’t acknowledge the daily struggles people face x


    1. Thank you very much! And I definitely agree that so many people suffer from disabilities in different forms, yet others shrug it off sometimes as if it is nothing, which is really sad!


  5. Invisible disabilities are so hard to understand – I think even if you have one kind it can be hard to understand another. The way those who don’t have them can treat you though is awful.


  6. I am annoyed when I present my “Person With Disability” identification card and the store clerk or cashier looks at me expecting to see some kind of physical deformity. I have had enough of it one time that I said, “I have diabetic complications. I have clinical depression and borderline bi-polar. If you don’t stop staring at me, I will start screaming.” Some people can just be so rude.


  7. There needs to be much greater information and public education around this topic. An example in point is those who have been judged or reprimanded for using a disabled toilet because they have no outward signs of a disability.


  8. There is definitely a lot of stigma around invisible disabilities. I don’t have any but a few friends do and the abuse and disbelief I’ve seen them encounter is disgusting.


    1. I agree, some of the comments i have heard from others concerning invisible disabilities are disgusting! There is still a long way we have to go in terms of overcoming the stigma and raising awareness of the fact that not all disabilities are visible!


  9. I think invisible disabilities are a lot more common than we think. My son has ASD and because he’s on the highly functioning end of the spectrum (would probably get an Aspergers as a diagnosis if it was still there) a lot of time strangers just think he’s very naughty, spoilt etc – and I let you to draw the conclusion for us parents.


    1. You are right – invisible disabilities are certainly more common than we think. This is why it is so important to raise awareness of the fact that not all disabilities are visible. I wish your son all the best in the future!


  10. I have a chronic illness, a husband with Asperger’s, son with autism, daughter with suspected Asperger’s and another son with suspected adhd. This is a really important post as each of us has faced stigma and so much work needs to be done to combat it.


    1. I am sorry to hear about the stigma that you and your family have faced, invisible disabilities should certainly be treated as seriously as visible disabilities. People need to be educated of the fact that not all disabilities are visible!


    1. Thabk you very much for the kind words! I agree that it is so bad that mental health issues are still stigmatised in todays world, lets hope that slowly but surely we can start raising awareness of topics such as invisible disabilities!


  11. This is a really good post and I totally agree that one should not judge any one . You never know what difficulties they may be facing behind closed doors. We should all show compassion towards others in every way .


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