It’s thought that invisible disabilities, also known as hidden or unseen disabilities, account for 96% of chronic medical conditions. But while so many of us have an invisible disability or illness, there are still plenty of assumptions made over what disability looks like.
Part of the issue is that invisible disabilities are exactly that — invisible. It’s hard or impossible to tell who has or hasn’t got an invisible illness just by looking at them.
What is an invisible disability?
According to the Invisible Disabilities® Association, any “physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities” is considered an invisible disability.
Examples of invisible disabilities include Deafness, blindness, epilepsy and autism. Depending on where you live, mental health conditions like depression and OCD can be covered under the same rights as disabilities if they have a substantial and long-term effect on the individual.
Chronic illnesses like diabetes and Crohn’s disease can also count as invisible disabilities because of their detrimental, long-term effects.
‘Not every disability is visible’ graphic via Medium.
So how can we all be more mindful of those with invisible illnesses? There isn’t a foolproof way to target your inclusion to people with invisible illnesses because you can never know who has one.
Here are our top tips for being inclusive to people with invisible disabilities — whether you know they have one or not.
🙅♂️ Don’t expect people to disclose or prove their invisible illness or disability
Everyone is entitled to choose whether or not to disclose their disability or chronic illness.
People have reported feeling stigmatized by strangers, colleagues, friends and family when they’ve disclosed their condition. Comments that get frustrating or are downright rude generate a discomfort that some would rather just avoid.
The solution? Being mindful about what we do and say to everyone. That way you’ll be inclusive to those you might not realize could benefit from it, too.
💡 If someone does share their invisible disability with you, reply without judgment with something like, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Thanks for telling me.”.
If you know the other person well, you might want to show that you’re open to having a conversation about it. Ask thoughtful questions, like “What’s it like having/living with [name of disability]?”. If they don’t seem comfortable talking about it, apologize and respect their privacy.
Not sure what you should and shouldn’t say to someone with a hidden disability or illness? Check out our blog post, 5 things not to say to people with invisible illnesses.
🙋 Remember that different people need disabled spaces
The International Symbol of Access is the universal symbol found in spaces designated for disabled people. It’s used all over the world and has been for over 50 years. The issue is that it’s not the most inclusive symbol for the majority of disabled people who don’t use a wheelchair.
People with invisible disabilities have faced judging looks and even verbal abuse for using spaces they’re entitled to use because onlookers have assumed that they don’t have a disability. Sometimes, someone with a hidden condition is put in the awkward position of being asked to give up their seat on public transport to accommodate someone with a visible disability or need.
Sad Rain GIF by @artsofgrief.
💡 Remember that not every disability is visible before asking someone you’ve assumed is non-disabled to give up their seat for someone else. And if your workspace doesn’t already have it, suggest a sign saying “not all disabilities are visible” to be put up in disabled spaces as a reminder to everyone.
🔎 Review your accessibility standards
For many people, accessibility is synonymous with wheelchair ramps and step-free access. But what about accessibility for people with invisible disabilities like autism or partial blindness?
Web designers might be clued up on website accessibility, but teams who regularly update their organization’s website content can be oblivious to ways that they’re excluding folk online.
💡 Share best practice for website accessibility to make your website inclusive for everyone with simple steps like these:
- Write in simple English
- Be as direct as you can with any instructions
- Include transcripts and subtitles for audio material like videos and podcasts
- Attach alternative text to your graphics
- Use sufficient color contrast for graphics
Find out more on the Web Accessibility Initiative website.
🧠 Broaden your understanding
The first step to becoming more inclusive of people with a hidden disability is building your awareness of the hidden disabilities that exist. Take a look at the list below.
Are any of the above unfamiliar to you? If so, click on the link and take 15 minutes to read up on the condition and how it affects those with it.
💡 Ask yourself, how might physical or social barriers restrict someone with that invisible disability? For example, people with Crohn’s disease or colitis sometimes face disapproving looks when using a disabled toilet by others who don’t realize or believe in the person’s invisible disability.
GIF by @jtartiste.
🤦 What to do if you say the wrong thing
Maybe you just weren’t thinking and reacted in a way that comes off as insensitive.
Mistakes are our best teachers. Approach them as a learning experience by owning what you said or did and promising to do better next time. Here are a few tips on what to do when you say something wrong:
❌ Don’t make a big deal out of it or cause a scene.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I feel terrible. I can’t believe I just said that.” Dwelling on it and going on about how bad you feel just cranks up the awkwardness for both parties. It’s also not okay to place the other person in a position where suddenly they have to make you feel better. That’s not their job.
❌ Equally, don’t downplay it to avoid the discomfort.
“Oh whatever, you know what I mean.” Brushing it off can seem like you’re dismissing the person’s invisible disability or the impact of it on their life. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be wrong, but it’s not something to push through quickly because you wish you hadn’t said or done something.
✅ Accept responsibility and commit to learning from it.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said/done that”.
“How could I have gone about that in a better way?”
“Sorry, I’m still learning.”
😕 If you were called out but aren’t sure why, acknowledge it and ask for help:
“Thank you for telling me. Could you explain what I should have done/said instead?”
🚫 Don’t benchmark everyone using neurotypical standards
One of the major issues that people with disabilities have to contend with is being expected to fit into unrealistic standards, like knowing how to interpret vague language or holding the “right” amount of eye contact.
💡 Rethink what acceptable behavior or styles of working look like to you. Are you unwittingly putting neurodiverse candidates and colleagues at a disadvantage?
Would you or others you know disapprove of an interview candidate who made limited eye contact? People with autism often find eye contact uncomfortable and might avoid it.
Do you expect everyone to be able to get on with their work in an open-plan space? Different types of neurodiversity can make people extra sensitive to noise. Normalize the practice of allowing people to work in quieter spaces or with noise-canceling headphones.
Would your style of communicating make sense to someone who took words for their literal meaning? Review your interview questions and briefing processes to make your expectations as explicit as possible.
“We use the neurotypical as a normative benchmark for interview success, but this needs to change”.National Autistic Society 2016 report
🙏 Believe people when they tell you about their pain
Having a disability that others can’t see means that sometimes people don’t believe you when you tell them about your disability or the hidden symptoms you experience.
Proving the existence of an invisible disability to health professionals can be a taxing task in itself. It can take years to be diagnosed for some conditions. Studies show that people can wait for seven and a half years on average to be diagnosed with endometriosis.
People with invisible illnesses face a different stigma to those with visible disabilities. They are underserved by others who don’t realise that they have an invisible illness or worse, because people don’t treat it as seriously. For some disabilities, symptoms can come and go so a person might be able to do certain things one day but not another.
Happy Sad Face GIF by @Barbara_Pozzi.
If someone tells you about pain, the most inclusive thing to do is to believe them.
✅ Acknowledge that the pain is real. For example, “I’m sorry to hear that. That sounds hard to deal with.”
✅ Check what they need from you. There may be nothing you can do. But it’s good to check that you’re offering the support they need.
In the workplace, flexible working can remove huge physical and attitudinal barriers for people with disabilities that include chronic pain.
Would it help for your colleague to know that it’s acceptable to let you know if they need to work different hours that day?
🗝️ Your key takeaway
When we default to accommodating for the majority or what we can see exists, we risk excluding people with invisible disabilities. There are simple ways to be more mindful about how we include people who have illnesses and conditions that we can’t see. It starts with broadening our knowledge, accepting people’s needs and disabilities without question and reminding ourselves that not all disabilities are visible.
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