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When people hear the word “disabled,” they typically think of people who are visibly disabled. However, people who are dealing with more invisible disabilities are often overlooked because of the assumption that they are not disabled.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), reauthorized in 2004, recognizes 14 disability categories. The first category is low-incidence disabilities, often visible and easy to observe. They include blindness, deafness, and orthopedic impairment. The second category is medium-incidence disabilities, which are often less visible and identified by behaviors. These include autism, developmental delays (speech, motor, cognitive, etc.), and intellectual disabilities. The last category is high-incidence disabilities, which are invisible and often difficult to observe. These include specific learning disabilities (SLDs) like dyslexia, specific language impairments (SLIs), and other health impairments (OHIs) like ADHD, asthma, or Tourette syndrome. 

A disability is defined as an “ongoing physical or mental challenge” (Invisible Disabilities Association) that can range from a manageable condition to an enormous hindrance to daily life. Unfortunately, a person’s disability is often measured by how much it affects the people around them. “You don’t look disabled” or “you don’t act autistic” are things that disabled people have to hear way too often. Any invisible disability “can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities, and can impact that person’s ability to learn or work” (Álvarez). 

The word “disabled” can also sometimes carry unjust, negative connotations that suggest limitations. However, what makes something a disability is not necessarily the condition itself, but rather if the world around it is made to accommodate it. In other words, “disability is an interaction between the impairment and the barriers put up by society and the environment” (Brown).

So how can we better support people with invisible disabilities? Firstly, we should not “other” people living with disabilities or invalidate their experiences. Saying “it doesn’t sound that bad” is one way this is perpetuated. No one should invalidate anyone’s experience of living with a disability simply because it does not align with their preconceived idea of what that disability should look like. Furthermore, many aspects of mental health conditions go beyond their stereotypes.

For example, behaviors associated with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are often thought of as having a short attention span or being unable to sit still. Sounds manageable, right? But other lesser-known but frequently experienced aspects include hyper fixation, mood swings, impulsive behavior, or anger issues that can lead to difficulty with jobs and relationships. When people talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), behaviors like constant cleaning/organizing or hand washing may come to mind. However, many have other experiences including hypervigilance, impulsivity, isolation, intrusive thoughts, obsessive repetition of words or behaviors, hoarding, food aversion, and constant apprehension. We need to normalize discussing and acknowledging these often overlooked experiences without the fear of facing stigma and instead with an expectation to be met with understanding and empathy.

There’s also a lot of performative and conditional activism in our communities. It’s easy for people to say they “support autism” until it inconveniences them or makes them uncomfortable. Many people support autistic people in theory until they see someone loudly or visibly stimming, or until someone communicates with them in a different way than they expected (i.e. without making eye contact). It’s important to embrace these differences in autistic expression and treat them as normal rather than “other.”

Another way to support the disabled people around us is by creating judgment-free environments, listening, and making ourselves accessible. Don’t immediately dismiss people’s mental health struggles; listen with an open mind and heart to their experiences and struggles. Everyone has their own unique perspective, so it’s crucial not to dismiss someone for communicating, thinking, or experiencing the world differently than you.


If you want to learn more about how to destigmatize disabilities, here are some excellent resources for more information:


Destigmatizing Disability – NCALL 

Invisible Illness – Harvard

The Challenges of Living with an Invisible Illness – Psych Today

Invisible Disability Project

Personal Stories – Invisible Disabilities Association


Works Cited


Álvarez, Brenda. “What to Know About Invisible Disabilities | NEA.” National Education Association, 18 August 2021, Accessed 11 December 2023.


Brown, David. “15% worldwide have physical or mental disability.” CBS News, 9 June 2011, Accessed 11 December 2023.

Invisible Disabilities Association. “How do you define invisible disability? | invisible disability definition.” Invisible Disabilities® Association, Accessed 11 December 2023.


  • Vital Manifest

    Truly inspiring! It is crucial to acknowledge and support everyone’s unique experiences, especially those with invisible disabilities.

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