My Invisible Disabilities: Do You See What I See?

Featured image: Photo by fran_kie on Shutterstock. Edited in Affinity Designer.


4 for Now

Some disabilities don’t present externally. But I think a lot of these “invisible” disabilities are written off as such because people aren’t really looking, or don’t know what to look for. For example:

Anxiety: For me, even while my heart races and I start to sweat, I “shut down” during an anxiety attack. I may get tunnel vision or just fixate on a point, but often, I come across as ignoring people, or being antisocial.

Depression: Not everyone is vocal about their depression. (With good reason. There are still strong stigmas around most—if not all—mental illnesses.) And many depressed people hide their true feelings when they’re interacting with other people (for any number of reasons). I’ve written about my depression, and there are emotional warning signs you can look for, but everyone is different, and sometimes we hide depression on purpose.

ADHD: To be honest, this one was invisible to me until recently. I didn’t know that many of my “negative character traits” were actually ADHD symptoms. A lot of folks will call us lazy, unfocused, fidgety, daydreamers, even stupid. But we just process information differently, and the “hyperactive” piece manifests in many different ways. (My leg shakes, and I have a bunch of other stims that I believed were just bad habits.)

Scoliosis: While severe spinal curvatures are more noticeable, they’re not required to affect someone’s mobility, breathing, balance, range of motion, and flexibility. I’ve been warned about the severity of my curve, but it’s nothing a baggy sweatshirt can’t hide from the average eye. I also have exercises that minimize the muscular deviations. But that doesn’t mean I’m always capable of the same physical movements or labor as an able-bodied person.

Eating Disorders: The stereotypes have a lot of us believing that anorexic or bulimic people are rail-thin and binge eaters are overweight. Eating disorders are more complex than that. And it’s important to note that not every person who is skinnier or fatter than average has an eating disorder. Likewise, not every average-sized person is without an eating disorder. For example, I may be thinner than the average US female, but I struggle with binge eating and emotional eating. Particularly, always feeling hungry, feeling like I have no control over how much I eat, and feeling guilty after I’ve eaten too much. (And, of course, my emotional support Oreos [Twitter].)

Myopia (and other vision impairments): Personally, I don’t think nearsightedness is invisible. (I wear glasses nearly every waking moment.) But glasses have generally become acceptable—trendy, even—so people often forget they’re an accessibility aid.

There are many other conditions, both commonly accepted as invisible and that can sometimes seem invisible. These are just some I have personal experience with. I don’t expect anyone to become an expert on every invisible disability, but I encourage you to take the actions below and remember we can’t always see what’s going on with other people.


4 *Actions* for Later

  1. Listen to perspectives from different people living with “invisible” disabilities or illnesses. Here’s a few to start: Mia Sutton’s take on anxiety, Sean Bennett’s piece on binge eating [Medium], Elizabeth Broadbent talks about ADHD and relationships, and Eliana Bergman shares how her scoliosis went from visible to invisible [The Mighty]. Also check out #InvisibleDisabilities on Twitter.
  2. Be supportive of folks with these and other disabilities. Here are some general ways to support people and some considerations for the workplace.
  3. Spread the word. Here are some reources from Change Direction and one example of an awareness activity.
  4. Keep in mind, these experiences are further complicated by racial and cultural discrimination in the “healthcare” system. This article explains three ways managing ADHD is harder for People of Color and this one talks about What It’s Like to Be Black and Disabled in the US.