In its most basic and well-known form, an invisible impairment occurs when a person has a physical, cognitive, or neurological disorder that is not clearly apparent from the outside but has the potential to restrict or challenge a person's actions, senses, or activities in their everyday life. Because these impairments are often invisible, it makes identifying, accommodating for and communicating about the disability that much harder – especially when there is still so much stigma about being ‘dis’abled.
Let’s dissect some facts. According to the WHO, approximately 1 billion people worldwide live with some kind of disability, accounting for 13% of the global population. In the United Kingdom, 14.1 million people live with a disability, which is 21% of our population.
However, after speaking to and interacting with people who identify as having an unclassified "invisible" disability, it has become obvious that these statistics are unrepresentative. Not only are so many disabilities not officially classified as such, but so many people are uncomfortable sharing and do not publicly register or document their invisible disabilities. For the purposes of this piece, I reached out to my network to speak with individuals who identify as having an invisible disability. I quickly discovered that people are reluctant to discuss their invisible disabilities due to the lack of public awareness surrounding them. In fact, according to a report conducted by Fish, there seems to be a negative bias against people who do not have immediately visible disabilities and do not use mobility aids. According to their national survey, 39% of respondents said that anyone who wore a legitimate Blue Badge but did not appear to have trouble walking should be denied parking in a disabled parking space. These negative public attitudes demonstrate a lack of knowledge and comprehension of the challenges that people with invisible disabilities can face, and explain why so many people choose to keep their invisible disability hidden for the rest of their lives.
The statistical incidence of disabilities in the UK is very high, which of course means that there are many people with disabilities navigating workplaces, as well as the education system. Different sources estimate that between 60 and 80 percent of disabilities are invisible, meaning that many people in the workplace and education systems may need some kind of assistance or accommodation; but those in charge are unaware of it until they are specifically informed.
It is arguably easier to comprehend the wishes and challenges of people with more obvious physical disabilities, such as those who use wheelchairs or hearing aids. However, with the knowledge of and catering to even these physical disabilities still being so minimal, those with invisible disabilities are left even further behind. With a failure from the public domain to consider the difficulties they may face, as a result, compassion and empathy are often in short supply. Ignorance, unawareness, and a lack of understanding are all factors that contribute to disabled people's lack of representation in workplaces, politics, general positions of authority, television or broadcasting. Cultural elitism and prejudices discourage people with invisible conditions from becoming visible in such fields because our society deems them not as capable, valuable or productive.
When it comes to disabled inclusion on television, for example, we rarely see programmes where disabled people are not othered for entertainment purposes, with shows like The Undateables, First Dates, and Embarrassing Bodies falling into the questionable "human interest" category. What seems to be enjoyable for the able-bodied is demeaning for people living with invisible disabilities because it serves as a catalyst for the spread of negative attitudes and stereotypes, preventing productive and informative discussion and seeking assistance when it’s needed. For many people, living with these conditions makes everyday life more difficult, for day-to-day systems and structures are most often ableist, built for those with perfect mental and physical health. Invisible disabilities are unique to each person and can be painful, stressful, and isolating. The only way for people to really comprehend the magnitude of the challenges faced by people living with invisible disabilities is to hear about them directly from those who experience it. As a result, for this piece, I invited several guests who identify as having an invisible disability to talk about their experiences at work, university, and in daily life.
“The only way to combat unsympathetic attitudes is to raise awareness, and it’s important to make visible the issue of invisible disabilities.” - John Garrard, Managing Director at Fish
Aaron Ramirez, Autism
I've always kept my autistic diagnosis a secret until recently, and now I'm so proud of it! As an autistic person with mostly imperceptible characteristics, my neurodiversity is frequently overlooked, and I frequently struggle to find help. This is why, in my opinion, awareness is critical! There is a great deal of education to be done.
In terms of my autism, a lot of what I experience involves misinterpreting social situations and having difficulty understanding other people's feelings, which frequently results in frustration and conflict. Despite the fact that I am a very sociable person, this misinterpretation causes me considerable anxiety. I also have difficulty expressing strong emotions such as anger and sadness - I have difficulty crying even when I want to! When something truly unexpected or extreme occurs, I can feel either completely numb or extremely sensitive to emotions. Additionally, I have difficulty expressing my emotions during these times. I used to struggle with eye contact, but have improved significantly in recent years. At times, I can also be quite sensitive to multiple sounds occurring simultaneously or to extremely loud noises when I am anxious or overwhelmed.
Madeline Murphy, ADHD and Anxiety
I was diagnosed at the age of 21 and did not begin medication/actual treatment until I was nearly 23. Thus, for the majority of my life, I was staying up until 2 a.m. crying in order to complete schoolwork that my brain would not allow me to complete and then reporting to school at 6:30 a.m. the next day. I believe that because the stereotypical image of ADHD does not correspond to how it frequently manifests, particularly in women and girls, that a lack of diagnoses had a significant impact on me. As a result, I developed severe anxiety about my grades/academics and social interactions, simply because my brain does not function in the way that others expect it to. I was constantly berating myself because it seemed so easy for everyone else to get things done and I felt like I "wasn't trying hard enough" or was lazy or incompetent because I would WANT to get something done but my brain physically would not allow it. As a result, I would constantly argue with myself or tear myself down in my own head. I attempted to fit the neurotypical mould, but when my brain simply did not function that way, I felt terrible about myself.
Once I was put on medication and diagnosed, my condition improved somewhat and things became more manageable. My anxiety and self-esteem have significantly improved. However, I am acutely aware of numerous microaggressions or instances of discrimination. For instance, when I mentioned to a friend that I have ADHD, he responded, "Oh, I get distracted too; I just force myself to focus." And that irritated me - the point is that I am incapable of doing so, and it frequently results in people offering me unsolicited advice on how to focus or reduce distractions, which is completely unhelpful.
I'm now a high school teacher, and I've been in staff meetings where other teachers complained about how Adderall or Ritalin turns students into zombies (which they do not...) or how everyone has an IEP and ADHD is overdiagnosed, used as an excuse, or is not a real problem and actually caused by students not trying hard enough. This is cause for concern for two reasons. To begin, because I have ADHD and the majority of people are unaware of it because I am managing it, what they are saying is hurtful and triggering for those who struggled with untreated ADHD (for example, constantly feeling as though I am not trying hard enough). Secondly, these teachers make numerous classroom and course selection decisions that have an effect on their ADHD students. If teachers "do not believe in" ADHD or do not take it seriously, I am concerned that they are doing their students a great disservice and failing them in their educational journey.
Anonymous, ADHD, Anxiety and Depression
Since I can recall, I've been neurodivergent. Much of my childhood memory has been lost, and I've worked diligently in therapy to reclaim it. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, as well as anxiety and depression. Additionally, I have a few chronic illnesses for which I have been diagnosed since I was 13. I am grateful for the support of those closest to me, but frequently feel the need to explain or apologise.
Obtaining my Bachelor's degree was a nightmare. I had to fight for accommodations to be made, and professors were frequently indifferent. My master's degree was significantly better, but there are still unrealistic expectations for neurodivergent students. Generally, I keep my mental and physical health issues private because I don't want others, particularly those at work or school, to pass judgement. I feel much more isolated and unsupported at work. I'd love to see policies in place that allow students and employees to take mental health days without deducting from paid time off. Additionally, I believe that expectations for "participation" in courses should be evaluated differently, as a one-size-fits-all policy or evaluation for participation is impossible and creates barriers for those who are unable to meet them. I've frequently been mocked for being the ‘emotional’ friend. I've also been mocked for being "too much," but that's sometimes how I cope with or conceal what's really going on. I am constantly learning how to love myself as I progress through new stages of my life, but I find hope and resilience in the lives of others who are similar to me.
Neal Camilleri, ADD
I haven't told many people I have ADD because I believe it will alter their perception of me. This was confirmed when I told one friend and she immediately began simplifying her language and acting slightly differently around me. I am easily distracted, am incapable of reading literature books, and find university readings intimidating. To keep me engaged in reading, I require texts with a greater number of illustrations to keep me focused on large blocks of text. As a result, I am reprimanded at university for not reading the paragraph correctly, when the problem is actually that there are too many words and I am unable to comprehend the text. I wish texts were more accessible to me, such as having words spread out, or that there were groups at university where I could read with others who had similar issues; this would help me feel more at ease and less anxious in these spaces.
Georgia Keetch, Dyslexia
Being dyslexic in an age of technology and accessibility being at the forefront of many minds is a lot more of a challenge than it should be. Whether its performative promises from brands and scholarly institutions, or just general ableist microaggressions from people, being dyslexic is a huge struggle for me and many other people with the disability.
In my case, my university is quite accommodating, but is that just because we as disabled people just accept crumbs and not the whole cake? Yes, we get extra time, and it is helpful, but that is as far as it goes. I believe that the best way to make being dyslexic far more accessible in general life is testing people at various points in life. The more tests we do throughout life, the better chance we give someone to make life more accessible.
It’s not common knowledge that you can acquire dyslexia through certain things happening - in my case, a head injury. It just comes back to the old saying: the more information the less ignorance. Comparison is the thief of joy, and for someone who is dyslexic, I find myself constantly comparing myself to peers and co-workers in the media industry. My disability doesn’t make me less intelligent, but systemic ableism in institutions and undeniably our own government often makes me feel otherwise.
These testimonies are just a sample of the plethora of the invisible disabilities and problems that people in our immediate vicinity face on a daily basis. Hidden disabilities have their own set of difficulties, which can be just as challenging. It's past time we increased our awareness and understanding of the diverse disabilities that people can live with, if we are ever going to make real and genuine progress in creating a more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ society.
I would like to express my gratitude to the guests who generously shared their experiences with me for this piece; which I hope is as eye-opening for our readers as it was for me.
Written by Yazz Bhandari, Diversity, Inclusion and Content Executive
& Edited by Tzeitel Degiovanni, Diversity and Inclusion Manager