What makes a disability “invisible”?

What makes a disability “invisible”?

It is as straightforward as it sounds – if you can’t actually notice someone’s disability right away, it is invisible. Many chronic pain patients are considered to have invisible disabilities. Unless you have something signalling to the outside world that you have a disability, like a guide dog or hearing aids or a walker, people assume you aren’t disabled. I guarantee that whoever is reading this knows someone with an invisible disability, whether they know it or not.

It is a precarious place to be. I have an invisible disability some of the time. Whenever I feel well enough to walk instead of use mobility aids, for example. I have no identifying marks or disfigurements or anything that could signal to strangers that I am disabled. It is a mindfuck – because I am so used to people seeing why I need to move slowly. People hold the door open for me and it genuinely helps. Stuff like that. I forget that I don’t have my “disabled” look when I am out without mobility aids, and get confused in these interactions. Why are they giving me a dirty look? Oh – it is because I am walking e x t r e m e l y    s l o w…. And how would they know that it is a literal need of mine, and not that I’m just an asshole trying to make you late for your meeting?

Chronic Illness as Invisible Disability

Not everyone with chronic illness would call themselves invisibly disabled and vice versa. There are many types of illness that cause disability; like Arthritis, ADHD, Chrohn’s, and you guessed it, CRPS, to name a few. There is a different type of stigma with invisible disabilities as there is no signal to tell the world that you need to use facilities or can’t function in some specific way. If a totally “normal” appearing person walked into the accessible stall in the bathroom, or sat at the front of the bus in the seat reserved for disabled and elderly people, what would be your first thought? Would you go up and confront them? My internalized ableism caught up with me and even as a person living this way, I can still feel doubtful depending on who I see doing these things. It is bad, I know, but it is the truth and I am telling you so you don’t feel bad when I just asked you what would you think – because let’s face it, you were most likely judging. If you aren’t that person, can I interview you and can you tell us all how to get rid of our internalized ableism too? Please? I really need to.

Living in both worlds

Many people have fluctuating symptoms which cause them to use devices on a need to use basis. For example, some days I just absolutely need the chair, but a lot of the time I can walk if I know it will be a short errand, or if I am at home and know I can sit down on the couch the second I need to. So I live as an invisibly disabled person part of the time.

I live in a small community and live between both worlds of looking abled (with an invisible disability) and looking disabled. You would not believe the amount of times that I have said to acquaintances that no, I am not “all better” and I use my wheelchair when I need to walk more than a block at a time, or when I am in pain. So when they see me using it, It is not that I have taken a sudden turn for the worse. It is a chronic illness (key word chronic). But no matter which way you put it, there are some people who feel the need to ask you in a dramatic, performative way, “OMG WHAT HAPPENED? I JUST SAW YOU WALKING THE OTHER DAY! DID YOU HAVE AN ACCIDENT?”

…(Can you tell by now that I have a short temper in these conversations?)

Here’s the thing. People mean well. I truly believe that people mean well when they comment, as infuriating as it can be on our end. This is the battle with ableism – it is insidious and everywhere. Worse yet, people don’t know it exists or think there is anything they need to even be aware of (thanks a lot, inspiration porn). Ableism is so rampant and such a part of our society that most people don’t even understand that it is an issue to begin with. This is one of the reasons why we need more and more platforms for disabled talent in the media, normalizing disabled lives and making them visible.

Parking in Disabled Stalls

I’d be remiss if I didn’t write something on this issue. It is so common for the invisibly disabled. When you use your parking pass and proceed to walk out of your car into a store, people can get very confused. And boy do they love to act on their confusion! You’d think that common sense would prevail and people would not assume that you have somehow stolen an identity or forged your way into getting that sweet sweet parking stall pass (because walking into the store from ten feet closer is worth committing fraud). But no, this is not the case. People get real mad. They take some serious offence to that shit and are happy to call you out on it. (But go around putting snow banks in the disabled stalls, or parking there without a pass “just for a minute” as they run in to the store, etc…)

1 Comment on "What makes a disability “invisible”?"

  1. Hey Kate. This is fabulous to see thank you for writing and explaining so much. I am a person with invisible disability, diagnosed over 20 years ago with myalgic encephalomyelitis with multiple chemical sensitivity as an added difficulty. You have seen me being very abled, doing theatre, dancing, etc. But that has only been when I was able. Then I often have a down turn. It can last for years. So I understand the well moments versus the unwell. Mine can be split in the day. If I overdo it, I can be ill for some time, or if I go out, I will present to the world as well, but be rendered extremely unwell from the exertion. I just really wanted to say good for you for doing this work! I think it is really important. Most people don’t even know I have the disability. I hide it well as I don’t even know how to talk about it. I think your divulging about your disability and the research you are doing helps me. So a big thank you and sending good wishes. ❤️


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