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Invisible/Hidden Disabilities: Even If You Can't See It, It Can Be a Disability

Updated on November 20, 2013

Healthy or Invisibly Disabled?

Is she healthy or does she have an invisible disability?
Is she healthy or does she have an invisible disability? | Source

Most Disabilities are Not Obvious to Onlookers

An invisible disability, also known as a hidden disability, is any disability (something that significantly affects several of your major normal life activities) that isn't obvious to an onlooker.

How Prevalent Are Invisible Disabilities in Our Society?

You may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of disabilities fall into this category of "invisible disabilities".

The latest number I heard for the US was that around 80% of people receiving Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) had an invisible disability. Worldwide, migraines, another invisible disability, account for 10% or more of the disabilities.

What we refuse to see is that invisible disabilities are crippling our world, not just their sufferers.

Disease is Not Necessarily the Same as Disability

Important note: Simply having an invisible disease does not, necessarily, mean that you have an actual disability; your doctor must decide that from a clinical perspective and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) will, in turn, decide if your condition meets their stringent criteria for a "disability" if you try to apply for it.

Unsolicited Advice Regarding SSDI: Hire a lawyer if you plan to apply for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) or else be prepared to be turned down for assistance a frustrating two to five times (several years, typically) before you are granted Social Security Disability Income. Especially with invisible disabilities, they will have a hard time accepting that you are truly disabled, just like everyone else in your life does. Also be prepared to go to one or more medical and/or psychiatric exams at their expense and of their time and choosing. Talking and working with a strange doctor you've never met before is daunting to most people, let alone sick people, but this is what you must do to apply for SSDI. Have your wits about you and remember not to act or appear healthier than you feel.

Off-Duty Service Dog for Invisible Disability

River, an off-duty service dog for someone with an invisible disability
River, an off-duty service dog for someone with an invisible disability | Source

The Examples of Invisible Disabilities are Many, Unfortunately

Examples of invisible disabilities include, but are certainly not limited to: multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, learning disabilities, diabetes, eating disorders, mental illnesses of all sorts, chronic pain, some cancers, frequent severe migraines, asthma, COPD, chemical/environmental sensitivities, asthma, allergies, brain damage, sleep disorders, Lyme disease, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not limited to soldiers returning from war), fibromyalgia, low intelligence, and simply dozens of other common ailments, and dozens more that are very rare.

Many apologies to those of you who have an invisible disability that I did not mention—I do not mean to forget, marginalize, or downplay your illnesses! Feel free to let me know what your disability is (click on my name to go to my home page, click on "Fan mail", and there should be a link to my address if you have sent me fan mail) and I will add your disease to this list.

Important distinction between disease and disability: As I mentioned above, if you have one of the diseases listed above, that does not automatically mean that you have an invisible disability. Your doctor determines this based on the degree to which your disease impacts your life, as does the Social Security Disability agency for purposes of collecting Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) if you apply for that. Note that the SSDI definition of being "disabled" is MUCH more strict than your doctor's!

Invisible to the General Public, Perhaps, but Not Necessarily to Doctors

Note that just because a disability may be invisible to the general public, virtually all—if not indeed all—invisible disabilities can be confirmed by doctors by CAT scan, MRI, bloodwork, PET scan, DNA analysis, spinal tap, or other standard or non-standard methods.

This includes all or at least most mental illnesses, which can be detected and proven scientifically and concretely, sometimes with a test as simple as the tried-and-still-true (after 85+years) non-invasive EEG machine, a routine blood test, or one of many completely painless paper-and-pencil tests for mental illnesses that are scored by a trained psychiatrists, such as the MMPI II.

Invisible Disability Statistics and More Information

A Service Dog for an Invisible Disability

A service dog for a person with an invisible disability.
A service dog for a person with an invisible disability. | Source

Support for People with Invisible Disabilities

People who suffer from invisible disabilities often don't get the support they need from family, friends, and even their doctors because they may look very healthy and still be severely disabled. For example, someone with epilepsy may appear and act like they're completely normal, and yet they typically suffer from many seizures a day—you may have caught them on a good day.

"Faking" an Invisible Disability

Even worse than not supporting the victim of an invisible disability, people may accuse the disabled person of "faking" their illness, exaggerating their symptoms, being lazy, or shirking their responsibilities, and, in turn, the disabled person does not receive the help they may desperately need from others.

They may even begin to doubt themselves and, in turn, exacerbate their symptoms by attempting to act as healthy as people expect them to be based on their rosy appearance.

Of course, society will always have people who will cheat the system, in this case by faking an invisible disability in order to get Social Security Disability Benefits. But, the honestly disabled people generally outnumber them by a high margin.

The Biology of Depression

Easy Self-Tests to See if You Might Have a Particular Invisible Disease

PsychCentral has an entire page of self-tests, everything from adult ADD to Asperger's syndrome and numerous others, including a "just for fun" section of tests at the bottom.

Reality check: reader survey

Do you have an invisible disability?

See results

Under-Prescribing Medications for Invisible Disabilities

Doctors may under-prescribe medications, especially drugs with a high incidence of abuse such as pain killers, because they may need to rely on the patient's word that a symptom is as severe as it is without running expensive and likely unnecessary tests.

Invisible Physical Disabilities: Don't Take "No" for an Answer

Some patients with invisible physical ailments are referred by their doctor to a mental health professional, assuming the individual is faking or imagining their invisible disease or disability. In this case, the physical disease is not treated and is not likely to respond to psychiatric treatment, either, any more so than any other person without a psychiatric.

Without appropriate treatment, your very real physical disease it is likely to get worse. See another primary doctor until you find one willing to order the often expensive tests necessary to diagnose the real problem and get you on treatment for it before it does become a more serious issue.

Dress and Act How you Truly Feel for Your Doctor

I strongly recommend dressing and somewhat acting the way you feel when you go to a doctor's appointment. By that I mean act naturally and don't fake "feeling as good as you look" for your doctor; if you feel horrible, let it show in the way you look and act.

You're much more likely to get the treatment(s) you need if you don't hide your symptoms and feelings. Think about it: how many times do you see a healthy-looking person getting out of a car parked in a handicapped spot with a handicapped tag and frown upon it? That healthy looking person may have an energy problem, such as with M.S., and barely be able to walk back to their car by the time they are done shopping.

Service Dogs Can Help with Invisible Disabilities, Too

Just like some people with visible disabilities, some people with invisible disabilities use service dogs to help them with their disability. See this article for more information on how service dogs can help: service dogs.


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    • profile image

      Lori Ward 

      4 years ago

      How do you apply for disability without first going through a lawyer? There are so many sites. I received my packet of paperwork from a law firm who doesnt receive any money unless I win but if I win I could have to pay them up to $6,000.

    • David Warren profile image

      David Warren 

      5 years ago from Nevada and Puerto Vallarta

      Great article! I haven't been here on HP in quite some time. I pondered writing an article titled "Invisible Disabilities" this morning so I searched first and found this article. Although medically very visible I downplay any outward appearance of my disability well enough that any acquaintances' would certainly not understand.

    • Laura Schneider profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Schneider 

      7 years ago from Minnesota, USA

      I'm so sorry you went through that. I hope that by writing articles such as this more people will get a little less "stupid". Rudeness might be incurable in this person's case (in my non-medical opinion, of course.) :-(

    • profile image

      dennis teel 

      7 years ago

      i have delayed sleep phase syndrome disorder and am mildly bipolar and also diagnosed with severe anxieties.i'm unemployable and been on total disability since 1981/Nobody can tell just by looking at me or talking to me that have these conditions.just as recent as last night I was in denny's restaurant enjoying my coffee when I happened to notice two women there that I recognized , as my mother has recently become acquainted with them and introduced me to them not long ago/i didn't let on that i'd noticed them as I was listening to my mp3 player using my headphones didn't really feel like visiting..I could still hear everything around me that was being said however..these women began talking about my mother and myself,not realizing I could overhear them,and one of them brought up the fact that my mother told her I have a sleep disorder.she added to that ,"but in my opinion he's just plain lazy."I've struggled with these illnesses since I was 9 years old and i'm now 59..i'm shocked at how absurdly stupid people are!!

    • Laura Schneider profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Schneider 

      7 years ago from Minnesota, USA

      Thank you, Kim! I'm so glad you found this article helpful. Thanks for letting me know!

    • ocfireflies profile image


      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Excellent hub! Priceless information! You are an incredible writer.


      ocfireflies aka Kim

    • Nick B profile image

      Nick B 

      8 years ago from Normandy, France

      I have Trigeminal Neuralgia, which I'm not sure is classed as an actual disability, but the pain that hits fairly frequently - when it's not just a dull ache is with me at least eighty percent of the time and has proved to be completely debilitating.

      I'm not positive, but I think it's as a result of whiplash sustained as a result of a car accident. It may not be and there's little information out there that doesn't simply serve to confuse, rather than inform. Also, different countries view it differently, with the UK seemingly right down the list for information.

      My medication has risen steadily since I contracted it and if it rises much further, could lose me my driving licence due to the side effects.

      Whilst it may not be viewed as an actual disability, I'd say that being in pain all day most days, popping pain meds like Skittles and having to lie down for anything up to an hour and a half if the real pain hits - which can be two or three times a week - constitutes it being a disability.

      To look at me, you'd never know - unless I was actually in pain at the time and trying to explain it to people is hard if not impossible. People just can't seem to fathom having your upper and lower jaws wired to the mains electricity supply for hours on end - or that there's no cure.

      Thanks for posting this as more people need to know that not everything that disables is visible or makes you a basket case.

    • Laura Schneider profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Schneider 

      8 years ago from Minnesota, USA


      To my knowledge, there are now no affective or neurological disabilities that can't be detected by a physical test or lab work. (Please let me know if you have newer info.) All of the mental illnesses, with the exception of multiple personality disorder which they now aren't sure is even a disease/disorder, can be detected by one or more methods that are concrete and scientifically proven. Multiple sclerosis is one of the harder ones to diagnose, but in the end it, too, can be diagnosed by combining the results of many tests and brain scans done over a period of time.

      "Anti-med kooks"--I got a good chuckle over your comment. Sometimes doctors are even anti-med kooks, which is even less funny in reality(!).

      I'm right with you on undiagnosed disabilities (or even just disorders or syndromes or whatever ailments one has). An undiagnosed and untreated (or self-medicated, as you suggested) mental illness can ruin whole families in very little time, and the sad part is that for some people all they needed was a simple prescription for a few months to recover, rather than waiting until their world had fallen apart and their brain was fixed in its incorrect paths and no longer very plastic/adaptive to the new healthy routes that the medicines suggested it take. Kind of like that person who has bad teeth and waits and waits in pain until a bunch need to be crowned rather than simply brushing and flossing daily and getting regular check-ups and a cavity or two filled here and there. (But then, I had braces for 4 years, so who am I to talk? I'm just pro-dental health in general, I guess.)

      Pleasure chatting with you, Stan! Thanks for your kind comments!


    • stanwshura profile image


      9 years ago

      I enjoyed this piece and found it an interesting perspective. My understanding and/or opinion of what an invisible disability is differs slightly from yours, in that I "accept" only the affective and neurological to be among them (those for which there is no physical test or lab work to 100% confirm the disability).

      But I find your your advocacy a blessing, and agree with you 100% about one of the fallouts of the ignorant masses' backlash "because it's popular at that time" - like the anti-med kooks for example.

      An undiagnosed disability does more damage than ill- or over used meds and all of the cases of narcotic and alcohol abuse combined! Okay - that's a little misleading, because of course, many folks who abuse alcohol and narcotics are either self-medicating, or otherwise vulnerable to the exposure and temptation - and eventual addiction.

      Looking forward to reading more of your work. :)


    • brettb profile image


      10 years ago from London

      Read an amazing book called The Mindbody Prescription by Dr Sarno (it's on Amazon). It will change your whole idea of why we get sick, and how we can recover from apparently serious illnesses. It really does work, and reading that book changed my life.

    • ptosis profile image


      10 years ago from Arizona

      In Honolulu, looking for an apt. land lady asked about income I said SSDI, She look me up and down to see if I had any missing limbs and said, "Wot wong wid you?"

      I was aghast.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      thanks for a great hub. My son and I have several "invisible" disabilities which I am writing about. Will link. I often get judged as being lazy or a bad parent

    • lucy_rox101 profile image


      11 years ago

      i have misses so much on school this year that it isn't funny and i know what you mean by that aswell cozs its really hard when you have a physical disability i mean people bully you so much that it isn't funny

    • Georzetta profile image

      Georzetta Ratcliffe 

      11 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I have missed more work due to my "invisible disability" (Asthma) than I have to my very visible physical disability (spinal cord injury). I think you're quite right that so many people have no idea.


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