Invisible Disability

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An invisible disability is a disability that is not immediately evident to an external observer. Notable invisible disabilities include chronic pain, mental illness, a learning disability, or a hearing or vision impairment. Invisible disabilities can prove equally as inhibiting as other kinds of disabilities and can be caused by a variety of factors, including physical illnesses, psychological trauma, and cognitive impairments.

Because people with invisible disabilities appear able-bodied, others may fail to properly recognize or acknowledge their unique challenges. This can result in people with invisible disabilities facing discrimination.

Invisible disability categories

Chronic illnesses

Chronic illnesses are conditions that require long-term medical attention and often cause discomfort, pain, and physical limitations in daily life. While those who have them can sometimes be identified by certain physical attributes (e.g., cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy will often lose their hair), it is mostly difficult for an outside observer to identify a person who has chronic illnesses. Examples of invisible chronic illnesses include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Diabetes
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

Psychiatric disabilities 

Psychiatric disabilities can affect cognitive functioning and mental energy. The primary causes of psychiatric disabilities include genetic and environmental factors, such as issues pertaining to brain chemistry, exposure to environmental stressors, and inherited traits. Examples of prominent psychiatric disabilities include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder

Neurological disorders

Neurological ‌disorders affect the brain as well as the nerves found throughout the human body and the spinal cord. The causes of neurological disorders include genetic disorders, congenital abnormalities or disorders, infections, lifestyle or environmental health problems. Examples of prominent neurological diseases include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Alzheimer's disease and other dementias
  • Multiple sclerosis and epilepsy
  • Cerebrovascular diseases, such as a stroke
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Parkinson's disease

Learning disabilities

A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability that affects an individual's ability to learn and process information. An individual’s family history and genes, risks taken by a person’s mother before birth, experiencing emotional or physical trauma, and consuming poisonous substances are all potential causes of learning disabilities. Examples of learning disabilities include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia

Sensory impairments

A sensory impairment is a condition in which one or more of an individual’s senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and spatial awareness are impaired. Sensory impairments affect individuals’ ability to interact with the world around them, and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

The main causes of sensory disabilities include accidents or injuries, genetic factors, illnesses, or environmental factors. Examples of sensory impairments include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Hearing loss
  • Vision loss

It is important to note that sensory impairments are considered invisible disabilities in specific instances. For example, if a person with hearing impairments does not wear hearing aids, or a person with low vision choosing to wear contact lenses instead of glasses, they will be considered people with invisible disabilities.

Coping strategies and tactics for people with invisible disabilities

People with invisible disabilities often employ the following strategies and tactics in their efforts to cope with their disability:

Symptom tracking 

People with invisible disabilities benefit from tracking symptoms. This includes monitoring existing symptoms and identifying new ones. It is important to properly and accurately document symptoms as they are felt, as this information can then be relayed to health service providers.

Seeking professional help

Seeking help from qualified health professionals can benefit people with invisible disabilities. The former can help develop an effective treatment plan to manage symptoms and alleviate pain and stress, when possible. 

Practicing self-care

People with invisible disabilities often deal with significant stress and can therefore benefit from engaging in self-care practices, including yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing. 

Educating others on invisible disabilities

Unlike with other disabilities, people with invisible disabilities often are met with skepticism regarding their conditions. Some may approach people with invisible disabilities in an inappropriate fashion, not knowing they are engaging with someone who should be extended certain services and civil courtesies. Additionally, there are some who disregard the notion of invisible disabilities, believing that a condition must be visible to be considered a disability. It is important for people with invisible disabilities to be vocal about their conditions and to inform those around them that they should be treated with dignity and respect.

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