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Invisible Disabilities: Someone May Look Perfectly Healthy yet Have a Disability

Updated on November 25, 2021
Laura Schneider profile image

Laura is a technical writer. She enjoys playing the piano, traveling, fine art, and making jewelry.

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.

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.

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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2009 Laura Schneider


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