What Are Invisible Disabilities and Are We Doing Enough to Support People with Them?

October may have ended. All the pumpkins may have turned mushy and the sounds of fireworks may call out that November has arrived, but that doesn’t mean that we should forget the awareness that October was trying to create.

October was disability awareness month.

This doesn’t just mean the disabilities that you can see; it includes the invisible ones.

What is a disability? According to the Oxford Dictionary it is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” These can’t always be seen but they are always there. 

However, being invisible means people generally aren’t aware of the disability unless they are informed, making it difficult for the sufferer. 

Some common types of invisible disabilities? Chronic illnesses are one, for example diabetes or severe sleep disorders. Neurological conditions such as ASD or ADHD are disabilities, as are mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression or schizophrenia (if they have lasted, or are believed to last, more than 12 months). Other invisible disabilities include physical conditions such as Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, and severe migraines, and this list is nowhere near exhaustive. There are so many invisible disabilities that people just don’t consider.

But they really should.

Why? These can cause just as much impairment as being unable to walk or hear or see.

Are we doing enough for people with invisible disabilities? No, I think we’re missing the most important factor. 

Education and understanding.

People need to be conscious that just because they can’t see a disability doesn’t mean it isn’t there. They need to be aware that disabled toilets and parking spaces aren’t just for people with mobility issues, and that just because someone can walk fine doesn’t mean that isn’t something they need.

People need to understand that daily processes, especially at university, such as queuing for prolonged periods or being in busy and crowded areas can be difficult for someone with a disability, even if it’s invisible.

People need to be aware of incidents such as meltdowns or panic attacks, and not see them as tantrums or over-reactions, but instead realise that the person involved may have a disability such as autism or an anxiety disorder.

People need to gather that things such as issues with food, or concentration, or just not talking to you the way you’d expect may not be a person being “difficult” or “annoying”, but may be the results of a disability that you just cannot see.

People need to realise that not quite meeting deadlines or having poor attendance aren’t always just “laziness”, but are often a result of something so much more serious.

Not every disability can be seen, but every disability impacts a person’s day-to-day life; that’s precisely why they are called disabilities.

It’s not your fault for not seeing it, but it is your fault if you decide to judge it.

It needs to be widely accepted that we don’t know all the issues everyone in the world faces, and that more often than not everything would be better if we just accepted that some people do things differently, and that’s okay. Some people can’t walk, others can’t see or hear, some people have to inject insulin, some people can’t eat certain foods. Some people can’t sit still and concentrate, some can’t handle loud noise or read social cues, some struggle with motivation and others are crippled by fear.

Easiest thing to do? Just accept this. Work around it. Life’s too short to make such a deal out of it.

And establishments such as universities should promote this. Disabled toilets and parking bays should have notices saying “just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. Nobody in a classroom at university should be forced to speak if they don’t want to. Nobody in a lecture theatre should be questioned for leaving. It should just be accepted that we all have our challenges; visible or invisible. Societies should function the same way.

Even though the pumpkins are shriveling up now and the firework displays are starting, remember that disabilities won’t change with the seasons.

And remember that even if you can’t see them, they are still there.

Hannah Mulcahy