It’s likely that if you asked someone to imagine what disability looked like they would envisage something that stands out. Perhaps someone in a wheelchair, a person with obvious physical differences, or someone with mobility restrictions. However, although all these may technically be accurate under the definition of disability, they don’t represent the whole picture. The idea of invisible disability is overlooked by many, but it’s important that we’re aware of it.
Defining Invisible Disability
An invisible disability is any unseen condition that can impede a person’s physical ability to go about their day without the necessary adjustments they may need. This could be someone with a colostomy bag, someone with chronic fatigue, or even a person with a disguised prosthetic. Although the assumption of disability is someone with a visible mobility aid, in reality this is a minority within a wider demographic of disabled persons.
Thinking before We Speak or Act
There are often stories of instances where an individual with an invisible disability uses a disabled parking bay or asks for additional assistance and is berated or dismissed due to not being believed. A recent example of this kind of scenario involved 23-year-old Nathalie being refused boarding assistance at Stanstead Airport for ‘not looking ill enough’. However, Nathalie suffers from a number of serious health conditions that means she needs to use a wheelchair intermittently, making her disability invisible at certain times.
This is a prime example of the importance of thinking before we speak or act when it comes to our perceptions of disability. We may see a situation that looks as though someone is exploiting disabled facilities when they don’t need them, but things aren’t always how they seem. Not having the full picture could result in unjustly distressing a person simply using the help offered to them for their condition. It’s important to assess the whole situation before deciding to step in and, if we do step in, to do it respectfully in case we have misread what is happening.
Consider the Effect of Jumping to Conclusions
An extension of thinking before we act is understanding the effect a rash judgment may have on the wider demographic of disabled persons. If a person with an invisible disability feels that they need to be visibly disabled in order to go unbothered they may to accentuate the appearance of a disability. Even the best-case outcome from doing this is an undeserved feeling of dishonesty by the individual for having to reinforce stereotypes of disability. The worst-case scenario is them avoiding using disabled facilities and assistance altogether because of misplaced guilt caused by others uniformed judgement.
By better understanding how our perception of disability can affect the sense of self-worth and behaviour of those with an invisible disability, progress can be made to a greater level of awareness. This increased awareness may also have the effect of improving the behaviours of those who would exploit disabled facilities when they are able bodied. It may seem like blue-sky ambition, but just like how collective perception might alter the behaviour of those with invisible disability, it could do the same for those who do not act considerately, albeit with a positive outcome.