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.