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Inclusion, accessibility and the importance of acknowledging invisible disabilities

By: Perkins Access


Approximately 61 million Americans live with a disability. In other words, that’s one in every four people. But not all of these disabilities are obvious. Many are actually “invisible” to others and may remain completely hidden unless a person chooses to disclose it.

However, a disability being less-evident to others has no bearing on its impact to the person living with it – or the accessibility barriers they face. In fact, having a hidden disability can make it even more difficult to get proper accommodations and appropriate access.

Perceptions and misconceptions of what it means to have an invisible disability or to care for someone who does, deserve to be questioned. Accessibility can help remove barriers for a wide range of people with disabilities and ultimately create a more inclusive society that accommodates the needs of all people.

Common types of invisible disabilities

Invisible disabilities require a shift in perspective towards disability, one that goes beyond defining it solely based on the presence of assistive devices or physical appearance.

Mental health conditions such as PTSD, ADD/ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety disorders can impact daily life.

Likewise, people who suffer from chronic pain and fatigue disorders, including fibromyalgia, chronic tension headaches, and others, can find some work scenarios taxing. And, for those with autoimmune diseases, neurological disorders, or achromatopsia (color blindness), it can affect their behavior, sleep patterns, mood, and much more.

Invisible disability quick facts

Individuals with invisible disabilities are safeguarded by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and entitled to reasonable accommodations.

The ADA doesn’t require that a disability must be visible to receive protection from discrimination. Unfortunately, people with invisible disabilities often face prejudice due to misconceptions about their necessary accommodations. It’s important to remember that individuals with invisible disabilities have the same legal rights as those with visible disabilities, including the right to access reasonable accommodations, and protection from discrimination based on their disability.

Invisible disabilities can impact daily life

Just because a disability is not visible, doesn’t mean it doesn’t greatly impact a person’s daily life. For instance, dyslexia can make tasks such as reading, writing, and learning extremely challenging. However, there are various accommodations that can aid individuals with dyslexia, such as changes in text background color or contrast, or the option for text to be read aloud.

Age doesn’t matter

Children and adults alike can acquire a disability. While we often associate learning disabilities with children, many adults also face challenges and require accommodations. In fact, according to the CDC, 40% of adults over 65 have a disability.

Fluctuations are common

Similar to visible disabilities, invisible disabilities are on a spectrum. For example, mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression can cause varying levels of difficulty in different situations and on different days.

Supporting people with hidden disabilities

Recognize that disabilities may not always be obvious

Just as you wouldn’t ask a person in a wheelchair to climb stairs, it’s inappropriate to demand eye contact from someone with autism or require a non-verbal individual on the spectrum to learn to speak. Disabilities, in all their forms, demand respect, dignity, and empathy. There is no hierarchy where one disability is deemed more important or deserving of support. Regardless of its permanence, origin, visibility, or severity, all individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal treatment and understanding.

Adopt a human-centric approach to understanding differences

Because it’s not uncommon for invisible disabilities to be overlooked, it’s important to resist making assumptions. Instead, take the time to get to know individuals for who they are and learn about their unique challenges.

Develop a relationship that’s based on trust so you can better support them and provide any necessary accommodations.

More often than not, people living with invisible disabilities bring unique perspectives, skills, and experiences to the table. Celebrate and value these differences and seek to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and supported.

Believe and validate

One of the best ways you can support people with disabilities is by accepting their story. Remember, the absence of visible symptoms does not mean their disability is nonexistent. On the contrary, belief and validation can be empowering.

Openly communicate

Create a safe space for people with invisible disabilities to feel comfortable discussing their needs and limitations with you. Encourage open and honest communication and listen actively to their experiences.

Show empathy

Demonstrate empathy by listening, offering support, and acknowledging the experiences of people with disabilities.

Provide reasonable accommodations

As mentioned, the ADA mandates that people with disabilities be provided with reasonable accommodations. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s the law. Accessibility measures go beyond just physical accommodations (such as ramps, automatic doors, elevators, etc.) however. It includes the online world too. And it starts with a commitment to digital accessibility.

How accessibility and inclusion initiatives can help people with invisible disabilities

By creating more inclusive and accessible environments, we can help ensure that everyone, regardless of their abilities, has equal access to opportunities and resources.

Increased awareness and understanding

One of the biggest challenges faced by people with invisible disabilities is a lack of understanding and awareness. Inclusion and accessibility initiatives can help increase awareness and understanding of invisible disabilities, as well as provide education and resources on how to offer support. This can help create a more empathetic and supportive community for those with invisible disabilities.

Develop an accessibility strategy

Now that you understand the broad range of disabilities that accessibility impacts, it’s important to know what to do next. We know accessibility can be daunting, so we’re here to make your accessibility efforts manageable. Perkins Access can help you develop an accessibility strategy and plan for long-term success. With high-level strategic consulting, we can guide you in creating a realistic digital accessibility plan for people with disabilities — invisible or not. Contact us for a free consultation.

Perkins Access
Perkins Access
As part of the world-renowned Perkins School for the Blind, we are committed to making the world more accessible for people of all abilities. And when you partner with Perkins Access, you become a part of that effort.