Invisible Illnesses

Approximately 1 billion people world-wide are living with some kind of disability. Given that the globally recognised sign for disability is the famous little stick man in a wheelchair, it would be easy to think that the vast majority of people with disabilities are those with mobility difficulties, limb differences, or sensory disabilities, as those are immediately obvious to the naked eye. What most people may not realise however, is that up to 74% of those registered disabled don’t use a wheelchair, or in fact have any outward sign of their disability that would signal such an impairment to an onlooker. All too often when people can’t see an outward sign of disability or illness, they find it more difficult to understand or believe that someone is struggling in ways that are comparable to those of a person with a more visible disability.

But what does it mean to have an invisible disability? Well, an invisible disability or illness is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities, but is not visible to an onlooker. Examples of this include (though the following list is by no means exclusive) mental illnesses such as anxiety and panic disorders, depression or personality disorders; chronic illnesses and conditions such as fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome) and MS; neurological conditions such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The nuances of disability 

The word ‘disabled’ is a highly loaded term, largely because of how it is presented in a media world dominated by able-bodied people. Many people feel that if they don’t use a mobility aid, have a limb difference, hearing aid or white cane etc. then the word doesn’t belong to them. This is a sentiment felt by many people with an invisible illness, especially if their impairment / disability is one that fluctuates or flares up rather than being consistent in the way that it presents. This is in part due to the ideas of disability that are projected in the media by an able-bodied public, such as our blue stick-man in a wheelchair. But the word ‘disabled’ doesn’t just mean that a person can’t walk or has an amputated limb. As with anything, invisible disabilities have gradients. Some people will be able to fully participate in their jobs and hobbies, but will have flare ups that leave them bed ridden until they have recovered from it. Others will be able to maintain a full time job but by the end of the day they will have little to no energy for anything else, like socialising or chores or hobbies. Some people may not be able to sustain a job. Just because a person’s impairment can’t be seen from the outside it doesn’t mean that it affects them any less.

How do members of the public view invisible disability? 

Studies have shown that nationwide 39% of people believe that those who appear to have no trouble walking shouldn’t be entitled to a Blue Badge that allows them use of the disabled parking spaces. In East Anglia this increases to 44% and in London it’s as high as 57%. This misunderstanding is in large part due to a general lack of awareness as to what disability really means and the range of conditions that it covers. Those with an invisible disability are all too often told that they are ‘too young’ or ‘too good looking’ to be disabled, as well as on occasions treated like chronic complainers or over-reactors. This can often lead to people having to prove their disabilities to confrontational members of the public, which can be a source of anxiety for many.

Why is there such a lack of understanding? 

Our culture is a predominantly visual one that focuses on celebrating and expressing individuality more than ever before. What’s inside is often proudly painted across our bodies and faces, our personalities and views expressed with our make up choices, fashion styles, hair and body modifications. Compounding this we are surrounded by the message that we ‘only’ need to do this or that we ‘just’ need to do that to be fitter, healthier, happier. In short, it is often expected that our outside should perfectly represent our inside, and this applies to our health also. But the age old adage “never judge a book by it’s cover” is still relevant, especially so when it comes to one’s health.