This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. The objective of this landmark civil rights legislation was to ensure equal access to businesses, telecommunications, public property, and employment for individuals with disabilities. Since ADA’s inception, it has become clear that the definition of “disability” is not black and white. Rather, disabilities come in many different shades and hues, some of which are not even visible to the average person.
When the term “disability” is stated, your mind may immediately go to tangible examples that you have seen or witnessed - perhaps a spinal injury patient who requires the use of a wheelchair, or white and blue parking signs for handicapped drivers. But there are also numerous types of disabilities that we can’t actively see or experience in passing - termed “invisible disabilities”.
An invisible disability is defined as “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". Some clinical diagnoses that apply to this definition include: brain injury, Autism Spectrum Disorder, chronic fatigue, anxiety, Deaf or hard of hearing, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many more. Some may argue that having an invisible disability makes it easier to navigate through day to day life because what you are challenged by isn’t overtly on display. Others may think the exact opposite.
Unlike more visible signs of physical disabilities, invisible disabilities may lead to different obstacles in daily functioning. Since challenges with communication, thinking, or processing are less apparent with some of these conditions, assumptions are more likely to be made that individuals with invisible disabilities should be able to “keep up” and perform in the same manner as non-disabled members of society. If there is nothing “physically” wrong with you, you’re fine...right?
What if you are a young adult one year post brain injury returning to college classes, and you notice you are plagued by frequent headaches, constant fatigue, and are unable to concentrate for prolonged lectures or class assignments? Perhaps you have an older parent who can talk non-stop about past family events and stories, but is starting to forget aspects of time and recent daily events. It would be beneficial for these and many other individuals with invisible disabilities to have accommodations or modifications to their daily lives so they can function to their highest capability and access all resources available to them. However, if an invisible disability becomes an unknown disability due to lack of disclosure or confirmation of a diagnosis, challenges with functioning can persist and impact not only the quality of life of the affected person, but also everyone else in one’s immediate circle (i.e., family, friends, employers, co-workers, etc.).
How individuals with disabilities - visible and invisible - choose to handle acceptance and disclosure of their disability is a personal choice. While population statistics on invisible disabilities are not readily available, there are estimates that as many as 10 percent of Americans have some sort of invisible disability. Some individuals with disabilities may feel more comfortable sharing their needs because of strong support systems. Others may be concerned about being ostracized or not taken seriously.
What we can work towards, is normalizing differences in functioning. No two people are the same nor do they go about life in the same manner. Chances are that you know or you are an individual with an invisible disability. Educating ourselves on disability laws and advocating for changes are both necessary to ensure visibility of all disability issues, and can lessen the stigma those with invisible disabilities face on a daily basis.
Read. Discuss. Listen. Empower. These actions can help us better understand and support each other. For more information on invisible disability resources and advocacy, see the references below.