Hidden or Invisible Disabilities

"But you don't look disabled!" How typical of human nature that we seem to think that people with visible disabilities have greater limitations than they really have, while at the same time we think that people with invisible disabilities have fewer limitations than they really have.

Here is a partial list of disabilities and chronic conditions that you may see no signs of on the outside—they are inside a person, affecting muscles, bones, cells, nerves, or cognition: allergy; arthritis; asthma; back injury; brain injury; Crohn's disease; chronic fatigue syndrome; diabetes; epilepsy; fibromyalgia; hearing loss; heart disease; irritable bowel syndrome; knee injury; lung disease; lupus; multiple chemical sensitivities; multiple sclerosis—this alphabetical list from "A" to "M" is only half an alphabet's worth of invisible disabilities. There are many more.

So how do people know? And what do people do? It is natural to assume that because someone appears to be in good health, that he or she can walk just as far, work just as hard, sit just as long, as everybody else.

Here are some very helpful comments by a Unitarian Universalist lay leader who has an invisible disability:

"One of the biggest things that I encounter all the time is having to always identify myself as a person with a disability. I can't stress enough how nice it is to pick up a brochure for a conference, meeting announcement, or any other sort of event and see a note about accessibility needs with a direct number to a real person. This opens the door for me to reach out and not feel like I'm imposing.

"Another way I try to approach groups as a leader is to always assume that there is someone in the room who has a hidden disability. This reminds me to always say things like 'if you're willing and able,' to make sure there are stretch breaks every 30-45 minutes (even if they are only for a minute) and to be very diligent about where I host meeting in terms of spatial relations.

"I will not host a meeting in a room without at least one table (unless it's a worship service). Also, I try never to turn my back on the audience. If I need to write something I ask for a scribe. Studies are showing that hearing loss is starting to be one of the most undiagnosed disabilities and by always facing my audience I hope to ensure that they don't miss anything.
"If I had to pick out of all of these suggestion, the first one is the most important to me. Not feeling like I'm an imposition is critical to me."

Remember, each person is unique, whether they live with a disability or chronic health condition, or not. Therefore, it is impossible to make universal statements about what will enable us all, in our diversity, to be welcomed through accommodation. As with all reciprocal relationships, it is always important and appropriate to ask the people being welcomed what will work for them.

Until you know someone with an invisible disability, you may never have had any need to think about the key points that make relationships with someone who has mobility limitations easier and more relaxed. With the intent to create a welcoming and relaxed environment for everyone, here are some ground rules we should all keep in mind.

  • Etiquette for Use with People Who Have an Invisible Disability