What Are Invisible Disabilities?

Published June 9, 2022

As humans, we’re often tempted to make assumptions about our surroundings based on particular cues, tropes, and societal norms. Scientists highlight the concept of optical illusions, for example, a phenomenon that deceives the eye by appearing to be other than it is. Depending on the subject matter of our assumptions, they can sometimes lead us down pretty inaccurate paths.

One realm these assumptions can be especially troublesome in is when considering someone’s disability.

Several factors may lead us to recognize specific disabilities, including assistive equipment like wheelchairs, hearing aids, white canes, etc. Opposingly, there are various other disabilities with no such markers. These are called invisible disabilities, or hidden disabilities—typically defined as those that don’t manifest in ways immediately apparent to others. There’s no fail-safe way to know someone’s disability, and assumptions can lead to inaccessible environments, inequitable workplaces and burdensome interactions. Here we’ll discuss the meaning of invisible disabilities and some ways to rethink accessibility that are more inclusive.

Breaking down the numbers

The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) explains how invisible or hidden disabilities may be experienced:

The term “we define invisible disability” refers to symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.

About 10 percent of people in the United States have a medical condition that can be described as an invisible disability. Furthermore, Forbes states that hidden medical and mental conditions make up 96% of documented disabilities in the United States. That’s an overwhelming majority of disabilities not so easily identified at first glance. These statistics may be surprising in that conversations surrounding disability typically focus solely on those of us requiring assistive equipment like a wheelchair or white cane.

Invisible or more hidden disabilities range from different forms of chronic pain, mental illness, chronic fatigue, and dizziness. More specifically, 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with an invisible illness. Some chronic diseases include diabetes, cancer, asthma, Crohn’s disease, but the list goes on and on. Then, of course, there are mental or neurological conditions that, while also not easily recognizable without disclosure, can come with overwhelming stigma and misinformation of their own.

Invisible disabilities: the most common obstacles

The misconception that “disability” means an immediately apparent physical condition leads to varying myths and obstacles for those with invisible disabilities. For example, the International Symbol of Access (ISA) presents a wheelchair. It is sometimes even referred to as the (International) Wheelchair Symbol, even though most people with disabilities do not require a wheelchair.

Often linked to misconceptions about people with hidden disabilities is an assumption that they are non-disabled. For example, a presumed non-disabled person standing on a crowded subway may be negatively judged or asked to move when taking a seat, despite living with an illness that causes chronic pain like Fibromyalgia or Multiple sclerosis (MS). Similarly, misread moments include a person without a wheelchair parked in a handicap spot, or someone assumed non-disabled utilizing a handicap-marked bathroom. Without assistive equipment as a shorthand signifying a need, it can be challenging to understand what the need may be.

As much as invisible disabilities face misunderstandings in everyday life, the likelihood of facing inaccessibility in the workplace is even higher. The main reason for this oversight may be since only 39% of employees with disabilities disclosed them to their manager. Furthermore, of the 30% of white-collar, college-educated employees, only 3.2 percent self-identify as having a disability to their employers. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, stereotypes and myths about people with disabilities along with work environments that promote conformity and compliance are significant factors in this lack of disclosure.

How to accommodate people with invisible disabilities

Understanding the complexity of what it means to have a disability is the beginning of the necessary shift in how society thinks of accessibility. Though a wheelchair is sometimes used to signify all disabilities, it’s important to note the broad and highly diverse community of people with disabilities beyond its most well-known symbol.

Invisible disabilities can exist in a myriad of ways, be that through chronic fatigue, or mental illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder. All types of hidden and invisible disabilities can affect an individual’s daily activities, and the added stigma due to lack of education of disabilities doesn’t help. Especially when lack of education in everyday life can also affect work cultures and business models. That’s why education is key.

Organizations like The Valuable 500 are working to better inform business executives so they may use their knowledge to optimize workspaces all around the world. Also, media increasingly shows us societal growth in real-time, with a recent 2019 study showing that employees with disabilities are portrayed more positively in the workforce than ever before. Many of us live and even thrive with invisible disabilities. A less presumptive society regarding disabilities not only implies a more accessible society, but also a more compassionate one.


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