The hidden world of non-visible disabilities
05 December, 2022
For International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2022, we invited Dr Elohor Ijete, currently completing FY3 year in forensic psychiatry, to write about non-visible disabilities. Elohor is the main carer of her mother (Dr Onikepe Ijete) who is a psychiatrist and who has a physical disability.
Disability is described as a term covering “impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions” by the World Health Organisation. Over a billion people (15%) worldwide live with a disability.1
Not all disabilities can be instantly seen or are obvious to others. These are often referred to as hidden or non-visible disabilities. A non-visible disability is described as a “physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities”.2
Non-visible disabilities can include traumatic brain injury, dementia, learning difficulties (such as dyslexia), chronic health conditions (such as diabetes and Crohn’s disease) and mental health disorders.3 In 2020, 14 million people (21%) in the UK reported having a disability. Of this number, it was estimated that 70% of the disabilities were non-visible.4
Having a disability or a chronic health condition can be a life-changing event in one’s life. Going through this process can be made even more difficult by having to deal with a significant amount of stigma associated with disability. I have seen this first-hand with my mother who is a wheelchair user.
I have witnessed people assume she is unemployed only to see the surprise on their faces when they find out that she works full time as a specialty doctor in forensic psychiatry and she drives her own adapted car. Navigating the stigma associated with disability can be even more difficult when you have a non-visible disability.
The fear of being discredited or stigmatised can lead a person with a non-visible disability to conceal their disability. However, this could lead to the dilemma of them not receiving the support they need if they chose not to disclose their disability.5
Even when they do disclose they can face the additional challenge of not being believed or a lack of support and understanding as their disability is not outwardly observable. I recently met a co-worker with a non-visible disability who told me that she often has to show people her blue badge to prove that she can park in a disabled parking bay.
The first step to addressing an issue is to raise awareness that the issue exists. Initiatives such as the hidden disabilities sunflower which allows someone with a non-visible disability to discreetly signal that they may need additional help or support have helped to increase awareness.6
In Scotland, a young lady called Grace Warnock who has a non-visible disability (Crohn’s disease) was awarded the points of light charity award for her work on awareness of non-visible disabilities. She created a sign for disabled toilets that includes representation of non-visible disabilities after she personally was criticized for not appearing disabled.7
The more work that is done to increase awareness of both visible and non-visible disabilities, the more likely we are to live in a world that promotes inclusivity and equity for non-visible disabilities.
- WHO. Disability and health [Internet]. Who.int. 2018. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health
- Connell W. From defining invisible disability to invisible no more -- what is an invisible disability? [Internet]. Invisible Disabilities® Association. 2017. Available from: https://invisibledisabilities.org/ida-getting-the-word-out-about-invisibledisabilities/defining-invisible-disability
- DPTAC. DPTAC position statement on non-visible disabilities [Internet]. GOV.UK. The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee; 2020. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/dptac-position-on-non-visible-disabilities/dptac-position-statement-on-non-visible-disabilities
- UK Parliament. Approved work: Invisible disabilities - post [Internet]. POST. UK Parliament ; 2021 [cited 2022Dec5]. Available from: https://post.parliament.uk/approved-work-invisible-disabilities
- Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1963.
- Sunflower HD. The sunflower is for people with non-visible disabilities [Internet]. Hidden Disabilities Sunflower. 2022. Available from: https://hiddendisabilitiesstore.com/uk/
- Shining light on the stigma surrounding invisible disabilities [Internet]. Legal Spark. Legal Spark; 2019. Was available from: www.legalspark.scot/news/2019/5/17/shining-light-on-the-stigma-surrounding-invisible-disabilities -