The Meaning & Impact of Invisible Disabilities

By Tiffany “TJ” Joseph, Bened Life Neurodiversity & Disability Specialist

Most people are generally unaware of disabilities that are not obvious on the outside. This means that a Disabled person might look like they have no disabilities. What happens a lot as a result is that Disabled people without visible disabilities are accused of faking. Many times they are accosted after parking in a Disabled parking spot. In some ways, an obvious disability can be protective from this type of abuse. 

We call these invisible disabilities, and they include: autism, deafness, mental illness, poor vision, mobility disorders, and way too many more to list. When a person is unaware of such conditions, they may not understand that a person might not be able to speak or hear, for example. Many times, people with invisible disabilities are met with anger because they may seem “rude,” “stuck-up,” or “better than everyone else”.

In fact, a terrible case in California happened several years ago with a nonspeaking Autistic man in Costco. Kenneth French was shot and killed by an off-duty officer, Salvador Sanchez, for bumping into and accidentally pushing Sanchez to the ground. French’s parents were nearby and tried to explain to Sanchez that he cannot speak nor can he control his body that well.

It didn’t matter. Sanchez didn’t fire just once, but unloaded ten bullets into Kenneth French, killing him on the scene. French couldn’t speak. He was nonspeaking and had dyspraxia*, as most Autistic people do. 

Dyspraxia in Adults*

Dyspraxia is a condition that causes a brain-body disconnect and doesn’t allow the person full control over their movements. Thus, it may mean a person bumps into things and people even when they try not to. They could say things or make sounds that may scare or irritate others. And because speech is often affected, nonspeaking people with the condition cannot excuse themselves vocally nor explain to others what is happening internally. 

While science is still trying to understand the connection between dyspraxia and autism, some studies seem to suggest a link. Dyspraxia is not limited to the Autistic community, though, nor is it limited to Autistic children. It’s important to understand that no matter what you think you might be observing in a person, they may be disabled, and you need to respect that.

The Impact of Chronic Illnesses

There are numerous chronic illnesses that are invisible as well. Just a few of the many include conditions that affect cognition, gastrointestinal function, and the immune system, as well as breathing conditions and mental illnesses like anxiety or depression.

Not visible to the outside perspective like a movement disorder, chronic illnesses can also be dynamic. That is, they can change form sometimes in sudden or random ways. They could also get progressively worse over time. Chronic conditions often also affect the mental health of the people who experience them. I’ll get more into this later.

Those with chronic illnesses often experience increasing worry for the future. Then add to that the anxiety over the next flare-up. Not being able to count on one’s own body makes for a constant worry because, while you may have plans, you can never be sure if your body will allow you to achieve the things you desperately want to do. This can include even what seem like simple daily tasks and major life activities like grocery shopping or getting dressed.

Developmental Disabilities

There are also many hidden developmental disabilities, like autism or intellectual disabilities. These neurological conditions don’t always change the outward appearance of the person, which can confuse others when a person acts differently than they expect. Developmental disabilities include some that cause distinctive facial features, but also many others like ADHD or cognitive impairment, which are completely invisible until the way someone acts or behaves differently than expected.

Dynamic disabilities affect many people

What Are Dynamic Disabilities?

Another factor in the disability world that ties into invisible disabilities is dynamic disabilities. Dynamic means moving or ever-changing - sometimes daily or hourly. Disabilities that are invisible can also fit this definition. This means that one day, the person might be very disabled by their condition. Another day, they may seem fine. As environments change, dynamic disabilities do as well. 

Consider someone with a sensory processing disorder. If they are in loud areas, they may become overwhelmed or feel sick. Someone who is Hard of Hearing or Deaf may have an even harder time listening in a loud environment. A person whose disability is triggered by flashing lights would be disabled in certain environments, and not others. Someone may need an assistive device one day and not use it the next. This is the very nature of a dynamic and also invisible disability.

All of the above types affect me almost daily. I have silent seizures* so no one can see when I am having them unless I tell them. I also have ADHD and am Autistic so there are some things I struggle with like impulse control, a constant need for movement, and sensory processing that is quite different from the average person’s. Many people are surprised or shocked by how I move and deal with my environment. Often, I fear that others may think that I am on illicit drugs. That has absolutely happened to me in the past when my brain is coming back from a seizure. I guess I act a little bit “off.”

You can become an invisible disability advocate by recognizing and being sensitive to those with invisible disabilities all around you

How to Be an Invisible Disability Advocate

So what can we do, armed with this information? Well, work on not assuming a person can hear, speak, control their movements, or feel well all the time in everyday life. Don’t assume that because someone looks like they can walk, they don’t deserve Disabled parking spots, because they may not be able to walk the entire way. They may have an Autistic child who will run away from them if they’re not close enough to the store.

Consider that if you’re trying to get someone’s attention and they don’t respond – they may not be rude and ignoring you, but they might not be able to hear or feel you touching them. Some major life activities are easier than others for some people, and the ease with which they can accomplish these activities can and will vary from day to day.

These are just a few examples with unlimited possibilities of why a person may present in a different way than expected. It’s important to understand and respect hidden disabilities and all people with disabilities. You never know when you might be interacting with an employee with a disability, an acquaintance with chronic illness, or a stranger with a traumatic brain injury – all of which can be invisible disabilities. Allow for the unexpected in people.

*Disclaimer: Neuralli and PS128 have not been tested for their effects on dyspraxia or epilepsy; these conditions were only discussed for the purpose of explaining the news story and other topics in this article. Neuralli is a medical probiotic for the dietary management of autism.


About the author:

TJ is an Autistic adult working in “accessible education” with teen and young adult Autistic non-speakers. She herself is Hard of Hearing and utilizes many ways to communicate including ASL, mouth words, and high-tech AAC (augmentative and alternative communication). Their passion in the disability space is communication and education rights for people of all disabilities. Find TJ on social media at Nigh Functioning Autism.


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