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Rethinking disability: Learning About “Invisible Disabilities”

Rethinking Disability

Learning about “Invisible Disabilities”

can change the way we think about Disability.

In the quest to understand my own mental illness I’ve come across the term invisible illness and invisible disability. In the process, the need for these expressions has become increasingly clear. Interestingly though, in my effort to learn more about the subject I realized my own ideas about disability were quite narrow and outdated. So before we can talk about Invisible Disabilities I’d like to discuss some of these general misconceptions. Here are 3 common misconceptions about disability:

Misconception #1

Disability = walking impairment, lack of vision, hearing or speech.

The first image that comes to mind for most of us when we hear the term “disability” is a wheelchair or a cane. We also generally use the term when referring to an permanent physical challenge such as walking impairment, hearing or vision loss.

However, it is estimated that in the US 74% of people living with disabilities don’t use a wheelchair or anything else that might visually signal their impairment to the outside world.[1]

Misconception #2

Disability = severe limitation in all of life’s activities.

The WHO (World Health Organization) defines Disability as “an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions” (full definition below [2]). Which is a pretty broad and encompassing characterization.

So, more often than not, having a disability points to a challenge or difficulty in the performance of certain activities, functions or social roles [3], rather than an all-encompassing impediment.

Misconception #3

A very small percentage of people have a disability.

Disability, I’m realizing, is like sexuality or gender identity in that it’s extremely diverse. This is not inconsequential, for it broadens our scope of the situation: when talking about disability, we aren’t dealing with a narrow group; there are over a billion people worldwide living with some sort of disability (that’s around 15% of the world's population) according to the WHO [4].

Finally… What are Invisible Disabilities?

Invisible Disability: an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of physical, mental or neurological conditions that limit a person’s movements, senses, or activities and are invisible to the onlooker.

The term can be used for conditions or symptoms like debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.

Artwork by NVM Illustration

The need for this term arises from the fact that, because the impairments are invisible to the onlooker, it can be harder for others to acknowledge there’s anything “wrong” and they might even think the person is faking or imagining their disability.

This, of course, is not meant to say that people living with invisible disabilities have a harder time than those who have a visible impairment. Not at all. Individuals with apparent disabilities often face discrimination, stigma and/or rejection.

Even though both groups do have many things in common, the difference between visible and invisible disability can translate into some very diverse experiences amongst them. For example, if someone uses a wheelchair, or is visually impaired, it can be easier to understand their difficulties and support them. But for those with invisible impairments, others may not perceive the challenges they are experiencing, and may find it hard to comprehend or believe they genuinely need help. Thus, for instance, the case with so many individuals suffering from mental illness failing to receive proper treatment and care, which, as we know can result in suicide.

This is why many of us believe it’s important to bring awareness to the existence of Invisible Disabilities. Hopefully this text will propel some of you dear readers to question your own assumptions about health, illness & disability so that more of us can participate in the conversation around this topic and even awaken the desire to act, help & support.

Any thoughts? I’d love to hear them! Let us know in the comments below. •

Artist Unknown


[2] An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

[3] According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA): “A person is considered to have a disability if he or she has difficulty performing certain functions (seeing, hearing, talking, walking, climbing stairs and lifting and carrying), or has difficulty performing activities of daily living, or has difficulty with certain social roles (doing school work for children, working at a job and around the house for adults)” (Disabilities Affect One-Fifth of All Americans).


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