When you think of living with a visible disability, at least some of the challenges of that disability seem obvious. But the challenges faced by those who suffer from invisible disabilities aren’t as immediately obvious to people who don’t have those experiences.
If a person doesn’t look sick or disabled, do they really face as many challenges as someone whose disability is more obvious? Yes, they often do.
Take a look at some of the challenges that invisible disabilities pose for the people who live with them.
When you see someone unloading a wheelchair from their vehicle, you probably don’t think twice about their car being parked in an accessible parking space.
But someone with an invisible disability like fibromyalgia may not necessarily need a wheelchair, but may be unable to walk long distances and need accessible parking close to the building that they’re entering.
Even if you personally wouldn’t think to stop and question a person’s right to park in an accessible parking space, use an accessible bathroom stall, or use other accommodations meant for people who have disabilities, many people do question those whose disabilities are not immediately obvious.
People who have invisible disabilities may be denied access to accommodations they need by people who don’t believe them, and they may also be approached by random strangers who question whether they really need an accommodation that they’re using.
This increased scrutiny can be upsetting, dangerous, frightening for the people who have to deal with it. It’s emotionally draining to be frequently disbelieved and questioned about one’s own experience.
Having to constantly explain one’s medical conditions to strangers can feel like a violation of privacy that never really ends. Choosing not to explain can leave the disabled person dealing with an angry stranger, which can be a frightening situation. Choosing to not use a needed accommodation to avoid questions or accusations can be dangerous to the disabled person’s health and well-being.
These are the types of choices that people with invisible disabilities must navigate regularly when just trying to go about their daily lives.
People who have invisible disabilities also face tough choices and challenges in the workplace. Simply deciding whether to disclose their disability to superiors and coworkers is a difficult choice.
Disclosing a disability during the hiring process may result in the disabled person losing the job opportunity entirely – discrimination in hiring is difficult to prove in any case, and often especially difficult for people who have invisible disabilities.
Once a person with disabilities has been hired, they have certain protections in the workplace, but they may still be hesitant to ask for needed accommodations, time off for doctors appointments or health issues, or other considerations.
Bosses and human resources departments who don’t understand invisible disabilities can put up obstacles that prevent people with invisible disabilities from getting the accommodations they need – even if they have a legal right to those accommodations, exercising that right can be a time-consuming, arduous, and draining process that may not always seem worth it.
It shouldn’t be necessary for a person with disabilities to disclose their health status to coworkers, but not doing so can result in coworkers who are angry and resentful of accommodations and considerations that are given to their disabled coworkers.
So people who have invisible disabilities must often choose between compromising their privacy or dealing with a hostile work environment.
People who have invisible disabilities need to work and earn money as much as anyone else does – and sometimes more so, due to the high cost of healthcare. Yet they often face conditions in the workplace that make their jobs more difficult and may compromise their health further, making it difficult to do the work that they need to do.
Fear of Stigma
Many invisible disabilities are poorly understood, even by some in the medical community. This can lead to misunderstandings about the motivations and capabilities of the person with the disability, and sometimes people who have disabilities face unpleasant stigmas as a result.
For example, chronic fatigue syndrome – a condition that causes extreme fatigue unrelated to any underlying medical condition – was often dismissed as simple laziness by people who didn’t understand it, including some doctors. People with this condition are still often accused of being lazy or unmotivated.
People who suffer from migraine disorders are sometimes viewed as weak or as accused of complaining about something minor, even though migraines are much more severe and debilitating than ordinary headaches.
This type of stigma takes its own toll on the person with the disability.
For one thing, it can be difficult to even get an accurate diagnosis if the disabled person’s family, friends, or even doctors believe that their disability is really just some type of personal failing, instead of a real medical issue. And even with a diagnosis, people who suffer from these types of disabilities may frequently encounter people who don’t believe that their disability is a real medical condition.
This can be demoralizing and can cause the person with the disability to doubt themselves in some cases.
This type of stigma can lead to other problems, such as depression and isolation.
Living with a disability is difficult enough all on its own.
Additional scrutiny, workplace discrimination, and stigma just serve to make an already difficult situation even more challenging for people already dealing with a medical condition that affects their quality of life and ability to perform daily activities.
Understanding the challenges faced by people suffering from invisible disabilities can help you become more sensitive to those challenges and better able to help people in your life who must face these challenges.