'Disability Awareness' Includes People With Invisible Disabilities Too

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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Face it: when you think “disability awareness,” you probably think “people in wheelchairs.” And when you think “disability issues,” you think “wheelchair access” — ramps and elevators. You think “he can’t walk” or “she can’t see” or “they can’t hear.” If you’re a particularly enlightened individual and spend some time thinking about the word “disabled,” which most people would rather not since society likes to erase us, you might recall things like disabled parking spaces and motion-sensor doors. But you probably don’t think about invisible disabilities. You may not have even heard the term.

An invisible disability, according to The Individual Disabilities Association: is “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” This is when disability begins to butt up against some severe bitchiness: why’s that person using the handicapped spot? Most of all: why do they need accommodations? Who are they to ask for help?

Many of us have learned not to ask anymore.

Truth bomb: 74% of disabilities are invisible, i.e., they don’t require the use of a wheelchair, walker, or other assistive technology.

And keep in mind that having a disability, or something that substantially impairs you in one or more areas of life, isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. Lots of people living with disability work full time. They parent. They do the same things people without disabilities do, but some of it’s a hell of a lot harder.

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It’s Not All About Wheelchair Access

When we talk about “disability awareness,” we’re not (just) bitching that we need more disabled parking spaces and ramps, though those things are of extreme importance. Because invisible disabilities are included in disability awareness, we’re saying that we need schools to enforce the IDEA Act: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which states that children with different abilities are entitled to “a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.” We’re fighting for autistic kids to have qualified aides. We’re demanding that children with ADHD are not punished for behavior related to their disability. I have thrown down with many, many people over that one, from relatives to homeschool co-ops.

Fighting for invisible disabilities means fighting for health parity: mental healthcare and prescription drugs must be covered at the same rates of physical healthcare and prescription drugs. Do you want to know what my ADHD drugs cost? Honestly, you don’t.

It means battling for doctors to understand and adequately treat chronic pain — without contributing to the opioid epidemic. Do you know they really can’t adequately treat my husband’s sometimes-debilitating post-shingles pain without offering him oxycontin?! Fighting for invisible disability rights is an enormous field. It encompasses everything from demanding better treatments for severe endometriosis to asking for increased surveillance of conservatorships.

Most People DGAF About Invisible Disabilities


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Reason one: they’re invisible.

Reason two: if you don’t have one, they’re easy to ignore.

Reason three: society likes to ignore disabled people, but especially people with invisible disabilities. We’re inconvenient. We’re also supposed to be embarrassed.

Consider me. I have bipolar II. Most of the time, I hum along happily. But once in a while, maybe twice a year, a combination of my disorder and complex trauma breaks my brain. When my brain breaks and I spiral into a bad depression, I can’t work. I can’t parent. I really can’t do much of anything but stay home and watch David Bowie videos. My husband has to take off work.

This is supposed to be embarrassing. Society says I should be ashamed, that I shouldn’t tell you this. It could probably be used against me in a court of law. However, my bipolar II is simply an invisible disability: if I had a disability that you could see, you (probably) wouldn’t act as if I should be ashamed. So why should I be ashamed that sometimes (not even very often) I get incredibly depressed?

I don’t look as if I have a disability, so it’s easy to say that I shouldn’t ask for things like my husband’s time off work when I need it. Who am I to ask for it? Suck it up, buttercup. It’s easy to resent me. It’s inconvenient that my husband needs time off work: for his bosses (saints) and his colleagues (also saints), who fortunately believe in things like “invisible disabilities” and “mental health parity.”

I’m lucky.

In Fact, Invisible Disabilities Actively Annoy Many People

Having an indivisible disability not only sucks because, well, disability, but also because it actively annoys people. I have a friend whose allergy to cigarette smoke meets the level of active impairment: if she’s exposed to it, she’ll be hospitalized. When (random) people are asked to accommodate this — by simply, say, moving — they often huff and puff and act as if they’ve been asked to give up nicotine entirely. Parents of children with ADHD and autism know all too well how bystanders often treat their kids: like they’re ill-behaved, immature little monsters.

When my immunocompromised friend needs people to wear masks, said people usually flip out. If she contracts COVID-19, she has a good chance of being hospitalized on a ventilator. So, you know, mask up, folks. But it’s like she’s requested people sacrifice their firstborn.

So when you talk about disability awareness, remember there’s a lot more out there than wheelchairs and white canes. There’s more issues than ramps and elevators, even though those issues are (and will remain) important. And that person using the disabled parking spot may have a damn good reason you can’t see for parking close to Target. Invisible disabilities exist. Have some sympathy. At the very least, try not to let us actively annoy you.

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