The Truth About Invisible Disabilities: Statistics, Myths, and Barriers to Inclusion

Published June 13, 2022

People with invisible disabilities are a part of most people’s everyday life. At the same time, many are unaware when those with invisible disabilities are in their midst. According to UMass (this opens a document), around 10% of Americans have an invisible disability. These high statistics could possibly be higher than the actual number because so many people with invisible disabilities do not self-identify or disclose that they have a disability. Thus, it’s more likely than not that you know someone with an invisible disability.

Accessibility.com explains that invisible disabilities are

Disabilities that don’t manifest in ways that are immediately obvious to others.

This is a loosely-defined blanket category that may include any number of disabilities, impairments, or medical conditions. This can include chronic pain or fatigue; cognitive or learning disabilities or differences; head or brain injuries; hearing disabilities or impairments; vision disabilities or impairments; and much more.

Many common conditions that people do not think of as invisible disabilities actually are in that category. This includes asthma, cancer, and mental health conditions.

As the Invisible Disability Association (IDA) reported, invisible disabilities disprove the common perception that the only people with disabilities that exist are those who use wheelchairs, walkers, or other assistive equipment. In fact, Forbes stated that 96% of people with disabilities have invisible ones. Thus, the average person should understand the basics about this huge segment of our population.

Myths and barriers to inclusion that people with invisible disabilities face

The false idea that disabilities are “fake” or aren’t real

The old adage that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover perfectly describes people with invisible disabilities. Many people have very real disabilities that impact their everyday lives. They simply do not want to draw attention to their disabilities because disabilities are deeply stigmatized in our society.

Take, for instance, working woman Carly Medosch, whose invisible disability, Crohn's disease, was reported on by NPR. NPR wrote that “going to the subway or even bending down to pick something up can take a lot out of Carly Medosch. But that isn't apparent from the outside.” Mendosch herself remarked that “I can pass as a normal, healthy, average person, which is great and definitely helps ease my everyday life — especially in interactions with strangers, getting your foot in the door in a situation like a job interview.” But that doesn't mean barriers do not exist. 

Some people assume that if someone isn’t openly struggling, they are faking their disability. They feel the person is not “disabled enough.” In other words, they believe the person with the disability does not match people’s preconceptions of who needs sympathy or support.

However, it’s important to remember that appearances are just that—appearances. You cannot tell what is going on with someone on the inside just by looking at their outside. All people with disabilities deserve to be included and have their disability validated—no matter how invisible their disabilities are to others.

The false idea that people with invisible disabilities take advantage of their disability status out of laziness, a sense of entitlement, or another unjustified reason

The New York Times observed that “people with invisible disabilities who are young or who look healthy are often accused of faking their condition or milking the system, and must fight to have their challenges acknowledged.” Some non-disabled people may hesitate to include people with disabilities because of such negative feelings.

Many have a philosophy that struggling people should be given no handouts, that they should pull themselves by their bootstraps if they wish to succeed. However, for many people with invisible disabilities, that simply isn’t possible. People rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability laws and policies out of a need for survival.

NPR displayed in this interview with Wayne Connell, the head of the Invisible Disabilities Association. His wife has Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis. He recalled how, "We'd park in the disabled parking and she didn't use a wheelchair or a cane, and so people would always give us dirty looks and scream at us.” He continued “when they see someone in a wheelchair, OK, they get that they're in a wheelchair. But what if they have chronic pain, what if they have PTSD — anything from cancer to peripheral neuropathy to autism?” Again, because Connell’s wife was not considered “disabled enough,” people were not inclusive of her and her needs.

It’s time for a real, frank conversation here: the negative sentiment some (not all) non-disabled people have about invisible disability accommodations stems from these non-disabled people’s resentment. That is − resentment over the fact that fellow people who appear non-disabled, or “not disabled enough,” get accommodations they do not receive. After all, it’s one thing if a visibly disabled person receives accommodations, and another if a fellow seemingly non-disabled person gets the accommodations they could never obtain.

If non-disabled people are upset that they cannot receive the same treatment in “the system” that people with disabilities receive, that should not be an indictment of people with disabilities. It should be an indictment of systems that fail to serve all of its people adequately. For instance, some people may be upset that the education system allows only people with disabilities to take exams in modified methods, like essays instead of tests. However, that just means the education system has insufficiently addressed the method in which every individual is best examined.

Disability accommodations are built to close gaps in imperfect systems, such as the education system. If non-disabled people are envious that they cannot receive disability accommodations, that is only more proof that disability accommodations are actually necessary for our society and should be usable by all people. They should advocate that their fellow non-disabled authorities implement these changes instead of berating people with disabilities, who introduced these changes in the first place. This way, everyone’s abilities, and disabilities can be included in the workplace, schools, and other areas of society.

Conclusion

People without disabilities need to maintain empathy and an open mind when they interact with people with disabilities. This way, everyone with a disability can be included in all areas of life.

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