Millions of people around the world have some kind of disability. In many cases it is impossible to tell, just by looking at someone. These "invisible" impairments are limiting in one way or another, even though it is not obvious to others. So let's get below the surface and talk about invisible disabilities!
Visual impairment, hearing loss, dyslexia, diabetes, disc prolapse, fatigue, allergy, neck pain and bladder problems. All are examples of disabilities that are invisible.
As defined by the organization Disabled World, invisible disabilities are chronic illnesses and conditions that significantly impair normal activities of daily living. The majority of people with chronic medical conditions live with an illness that is invisible, and about a quarter of them have some type of activity limitation, ranging from mild to severe.
Unfortunately, people often judge others by what they see and conclude that a person can or cannot do something by the way they look. This can be equally frustrating for those who may appear unable, but are perfectly capable, as well as those who appear able, but are not.
International disability expert, Joni Eareckson Tada, explained it well when she talked to a person living with debilitating fatigue:
“People have such high expectations of folks like you [with invisible disabilities]. Like, ‘come on, get your act together.’ But they have such low expectations of folks like me in wheelchairs, as though they expect that we cannot do much”.
The bottom line is that everyone with a disability is different, with varying challenges and needs, as well as abilities and attributes.
It is also a matter of terminology. A person with a disability doesn’t always have to be disabled. Many people living with these challenges are fully active in their lives. They work, spend time with their families, do sports and enjoy a variety of hobbies. Others can’t work or have trouble with their daily activities. But you are only disabled in relation to the world around you, and the obstacles you meet in a specific situation will determine whether you are disabled or not.
When it comes to personal ability levels, vocabulary is important. Instead of talking about “the disabled person", consider “a person with a disability”. Notice the difference? Disabled is not who you are. To acknowledge the person before the disability is called a ‘person first language’, and is a good thing to remember when you communicate around these questions.
For some guidance on how to respectfully speak with differently-abled people, we love this Disability Etiquette guide from United Spinal Association!