Imagine you pull into a small parking lot behind a wheelchair-accessible van. You wait behind the wheel of your car as the driver of the vehicle slowly finds an appropriate parking spot and proceeds with the process of unloading the disabled passenger and her wheelchair.
Due to the size of the parking lot, you are unable to either park or pass while all of this is happening. It’s inconvenient and possibly making you late, but nevertheless — assuming you are not a sociopath — you feel compassion. You know that some people simply have disabilities that merit your deference, and you are more than willing to extend the understanding the situation requires.
After all, most people sincerely want to be accommodating to anyone struggling with extra physical or mental challenges. And if we can visibly spot the disability right away, it’s generally pretty easy to do so. But the problem often is that we can’t.
The odds are high that you know at least one person who has an invisible disability that affects their quality of life, and more than likely you encounter many more in the places you live and work every day. Here are five things you should know about the people around you with invisible disabilities:
1. Invisible disabilities are not a cop-out
Invisible disabilities are real medical conditions, whether physical or mental, that restrict a person’s ability to engage in at least one basic life activity. They are not figments of the person’s imagination or a flimsy excuse to pass on something they would rather not do. Invisible disabilities are discussed with and confirmed by medical professionals, and deserve the same respect given to visible disabilities.
2. There is no single, exhaustive list to consult
The spectrum of invisible disabilities is extremely wide, encompassing conditions as varied as hearing impairment, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and chronic pain. Many of the diagnoses, such as autism and depression, have their own spectrum of severity as well. There is no “disability police” determining who’s in or out of the construct: if a disability is not obvious to an observer yet significantly restricts the person’s ability to function in daily life, it’s an invisible disability.
3. The lack of visibility sometimes makes it harder
Having a disability that does not affect one’s physical presentation (i.e. no distinct physical features or need for special equipment) may seem easier than, say, being confined to a wheelchair, but it presents a different set of problems. People with invisible disabilities don’t benefit from the immediate understanding and allowances from the general public that their visibly disabled peers receive. Sometimes unfair assumptions are made about things like their character or work ethic — often leading them to feel judged, misunderstood, and alone.
4. Jumping to conclusions is unfair and causes pain
It’s tempting to cast judgment on a stranger or acquaintance whom we observe behaving oddly, but it’s important to first stop to consider the possibility that they might be dealing with a disability we can’t see. If the person is privately trying their best to manage a lifelong challenge, the last thing they need is our worst assumptions. We would do well to remember that we don’t know the full story behind what we’re seeing, and responding with empathy in such scenarios is always a good rule of thumb.
5. Seeking to understand speaks volumes
Individuals with invisible disabilities consistently say that one of the most loving things a friend or family member can do to support them is simply to listen. Having an invisible disability can feel isolating, but relationships that seek to learn by asking questions and affirming the difficulty of the person’s experience offer great comfort. No one wants to feel overly pitied or treated too delicately, but acknowledging the disability and being willing to make allowances for it when necessary communicates a truly caring friendship.
There is a saying that goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The authorship of this quote is debated, but the point remains: when it comes to your fellow humans, don’t judge a book by its cover. This is never more true than in the area of invisible disabilities. So the next time you’re tempted to judge someone by what you see, consider that the hard battle they are fighting might just be an invisible disability.