I am one of the 74% of people with disabilities that have an invisible disability. But I wasn’t even aware that I had a disability until I was filling out paperwork for a state identification card at the DMV. One of the last questions on the form read: “Do you have a disability? A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” I was dumbfounded- of course I do. The reason why I was getting my state identification card was because my epilepsy prevented me from obtaining my driver’s license. However, this was the first time I had ever considered myself as having a disability because others can’t see my epilepsy unless I have a seizure.
Invisible disabilities can range from an immensely diverse range of conditions such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue, epilepsy, mental health issues, etc. All of these conditions require some sort of adaptation to continue on living life as that individual sees fit- just like any other disability. However, the social barriers are very different. Although people with invisible disabilities don’t have to deal with the perpetual stigma of being incapable of doing something that they are completely capable of doing, people with invisible disabilities face the opposite stigma. People with invisible disabilities are often perceived to be dishonest about what they can and cannot do or feel uncomfortable asking for accommodation because “they look fine”. This can create hostile work environments where the person with an invisible disability is accused of lying or told to “Just suck it up.”
This stigma is not tethered to the workplace and is carried with them throughout the day. While trying to understand the idea of invisible disabilities, I scoured reddit for the personal, day-to-day experience of what it meant to have an invisible disability. One reddit user described having a chronic fatigue condition that caused him to faint if he stood for extended periods of time. Having just gotten off work to catch the bus, he was desperate to sit down because he felt himself on the verge of fainting. He asked a woman for a seat with a lot of reservation and shame because of the expectation that a man should stand for a woman. Despite this, he asked anyway and explained that he had a condition that required him to sit down. She replied, “You look fine to me. A young man should have some manners.” He explained that he had to beg her for the seat until she ultimately forfeited it with a large display of irritation. This anecdote was followed by an extensive thread where many other reddit users vented their frustrations about experiencing similar situations.
I think it’s incredibly important to understand invisible disabilities because it has the potential to change someone’s understanding of the PwD community as well as society at large. Visible or not, the expectations of what people can and cannot do is a very nuanced topic for PwD, a community of about 53 million people that is growing. However, this extends itself to society at large. Invisible disabilities reinforce the idea that someone’s appearance should never be used as evidence of any definitive qualities they have. Appearance should never be how you define another person- be it their use of an assistive device or their skin color or their gender presentation. Once everyone realizes that anyone could have a disability, perhaps the average stranger will be more open-minded and understanding. With increased awareness and visibility, this could very well be the case.