Have you ever seen someone park a vehicle with a visible allocated disabled parking sticker in a designated disability car space and watched as the individual got out without signs of having an apparent disability? What was your reaction? Did you feel upset thinking this person was taking advantage of the privilege of having a disabled parking pass?
It might be that what your seeing is not what it appears.
According to the Australian Network on Disability approximately 4.3 million Australians have a disability and only 4.4% of those people use a wheelchair. This means that there are many people identified with a known disability that may not appear outwardly as having a disability.
A person cannot be defined by whether they use a visible aid, making disability not always obvious to the onlooker. The term invisible or hidden disability is used to describe a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible yet can limit or challenge a person’s ability to undertake day-to-day activities (Invisibility Disability Association, 2020).
Invisible disabilities can be segmented into four areas although is not limited to chronic medical conditions, mental illness, genetic conditions or neurological conditions. These areas include conditions ranging from Chronic Fatigue, Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Depression, Autism and Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. The true number of people living with invisible disability is difficult to ascertain. Many people who may have a chronic condition that challenges them in life may not identify as being disabled.
A study published in 2010 by Aimee Valeras published in Disabilities Studies Quarterly discussed the sense of anomality many people living with hidden disabilities may wish to keep because they feel they do not fit into either category of being disabled or abled bodied. Valeras (2010) observes ‘with a foot in both the nondisabled and the disability worlds, they belong to both and fit completely into neither’. She goes on to describe in detail the social impact this has on identity, with ‘Bi-abled people transforming their identity and needs depending on the situational context’.
The statistics that we can ascertain show according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare point out that 22% of people identify their disability as mental or behavioural while Brain Injury Australia state that 700, 000 Australians have an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2018 that 205,200 Australians lived with autism, an increase of 25.1% from 2015. What these numbers demonstrate is that numbers of hidden disabilities are more likely higher than can be established meaning society will need to change their perceptions AND conditioned definition of what disabled means.
How to be mindful of people with Invisible Disabilities:
- Do not assume someone who uses a disabled car park or disabled accessible bathroom is not disabled.
- Respect everyone’s sense of privacy – if they are not using a visible aid or do not have an apparent disability but have indicated they are disabled (verbally, in writing or through actions such as above), do not ask questions. Find acceptance that they know their body best and we cannot assume to know what it took them to identify as disabled.
- Do not judge someone if there actions are not congruent with how they look. Perhaps not giving up their seat to someone seemingly disabled is not because they are rude but because they have an Invisible disability themselves.
- Being kind to all people and being mindful of how we speak and act towards everyone is good practice because we can never know what someone is going through. Many people including those with invisible disabilities may be disguising the challenging day they are
Currently people with Hidden Disability are currently eligible for NDIS services, however must meet the access requirements. The access requirements for disability can be viewed on the NDIS website.