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Talking About Invisible Disabilities: The Unique Challenges We Face

September 30, 2022 / Invisible Disabilities

A brown-skinned college-age woman sits at a table in a classroom, working on a test. Other students can be seen behind her.

by AACs Writing Intern Angela Lika

This is the first blog in a four-part series about invisible disabilities.

When August turns into September and midterm season starts to creep around the corner, I find myself wading into a familiar yet dreadful feeling. 

My professor for one class stands in front of the room, explaining to us how the exam will be timed and only available during a certain window. My professor for another class follows my movement with his eyes as I walk into class late, feeling fatigued and dizzy.

I don’t even entertain the idea of asking for accommodations from either of them. 

The ordeal leaves me feeling exposed and ashamed each time. Asking for accommodations is a gamble—high risk, but with no reward. I’d rather sink into my seat and put up the nondisabled front. 

I’d rather blend in with everyone else.

For many people who live with an invisible disability, these kinds of moments are very familiar. It’s often too difficult to explain how or why you need accommodations in the first place.

Unlike visible disabilities, invisible disabilities aren’t instantly recognizable based on your physicality alone, so many people who fall under this umbrella are not seen or treated as disabled.

The number of people with invisible disabilities is significant, too. Based on data from 2012, around 19 million people have an invisible disability. This number could be even higher, now, considering the Covid-19 pandemic and the long-term effects this virus can have on your health.

Since invisible disabilities are common, some people might assume that we navigate our lives relatively easily. We can “pass” as nondisabled, so doesn’t that take the burden of ableism off of us? 

While it’s true that passing as nondisabled comes with a type of privilege for some, this mode of stealth still feels like walking on a tightrope at times. We constantly battle whether to disclose vulnerable information about ourselves or endure systematic ableism in silence.

These kinds of experiences make me realize that a common stigma of disability is about what you can readily prove about yourself, too.

Can you prove you’re better off working from home? Can you prove you really need extra time on a standardized test? Can you prove what you go through is “valid” enough in the eyes of a nondisabled person?

Constantly having to prove your status of a disabled person to a nondisabled audience also overlooks that disability is a fluid experience. So called “good days” and flare ups exist for many disabled people. 

If you ask your boss for accommodations on a “good day,” they may believe that you’re exaggerating—or even lying—about your disability. However, waiting until a “bad day” comes with its own challenges. Waiting to open up about your disability might cause your boss to think you’re hiding information from them. Hiding your disability until a “bad day” then can cause problems where you’re too exhausted, physically or mentally, to explain why you need accommodations.

Not to mention these attitudes can come from your peers as well. Some will assume you’re asking to be considered a “special case.” Others will think you’re lazy or taking the “easy” route.

It’s instances like this that makes many disabled people afraid or just too exhausted to confront the ableism that exists in their everyday lives.

Having an invisible disability can feel like a performance where you’re always trying to appease a crowd that judges you. You can’t go off the script of “passing” as nondisabled or else you open yourself up to ableism and scrutiny. You can’t play the role of a nondisabled person too well, either, or else you won’t be able to vouch for how certain accommodations are necessary for your wellbeing.

Since invisible disabilities often don’t come with any visual cues, we have to rely on others to express understanding and compassion for our disability.

For me, relying on others to grant my wish of needing accommodations takes away a sense of autonomy, though. It’s as if I need a stamp of approval based on arbitrary and rigid standards that can be revoked at any time for any reason.

Pain doesn’t always have to be present when you’re disabled. It doesn’t have to be seen, either.

Since invisible disabilities come with different experiences for every person, I wanted to offer a small glimpse of my own life and how I try to make sense of the barriers around me. Throughout this series, I’ll talk about invisible disabilities from both mental and physical spectrums. Invisible disabilities can vary, so this series will be a small corner out of the big picture. My final installment will cover people with invisible disabilities who are victims of crime and include resources they can access when thinking about what accommodations and protections are available to them.

Angela Lika is a B.A. student at The Ohio State University who writes professionally. Angela’s areas of interest include literature, video games and disability studies—specifically combining all three and analyzing them together.