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Don’t Judge by Appearances

Understanding and relating respectfully to persons having an invisible disability                            

Most of us have seen someone pull their vehicle into a parking spot designated as “handicapped only” and wondered why, when the sole occupant walked off appearing to be in excellent health. Perhaps you felt protective of the rights of persons who have a disability to use such a spot, and cast the perpetrator a disapproving frown.

That universal symbol of the vacant wheelchair designating a handicapped parking place might seem to mandate that a person parking there be using a wheelchair, or at least an assistive mobility device. Further, our culture’s emphasis on people’s appearance may predispose us to make quick judgments based primarily on what we can see. We begin to forget that not everything that is important to know about a person is easily discerned.

This is a gentle reminder that not all disabilities are visible. It may be a bit surprising to to learn that most disabilities are NOT visible. The statistic often cited is that one in 10 Americans has an invisible disability, or one with no obvious outward signs.

The Americans with Disabilities Act used the term “disability” to indicate that the outcome of a physical, cognitive, or psycho-social impairment or combination of impairments was that it limited an individual’s ability to do everyday tasks. The “disability” is not named by the disease or condition (for example, autism or multiple sclerosis are not disabilities). Rather, the condition becomes a disability only as it limits or makes it more difficult to do functional tasks.

People who have invisible or hidden disabilities can find themselves in a unique dilemma. While they may not want to disclose or bring attention to their medical condition, there may be times when they need special accommodations. Others may perceive their behavior as “attention seeking,” or “taking advantage.”

Not an exhaustive list, the following are examples of frequently cited conditions that may result in invisible disabilities:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome & other conditions that cause debilitating fatigue (renal disease; hepatitis; sleep disorders; cancer; post-operative fatigue).
  • Conditions that cause chronic pain (arthritis; fibromyalgia; migraines).
  • Conditions that impair vision (macular degeneration; night blindness; retinitis pigmentosa;).
  • Neurological conditions (Parkinson’s disease; multiple sclerosis; Guillain-Barre; post West-Nile).
  • Cardiac conditions.
  • Dizziness/balance disorders.
  • Vascular disorders (stroke).
  • Conditions that impair breathing (asthma; COPD; congestive heart failure).
  • Limb/partial limb amputations.
  • Diminished hearing.
  • Mental health conditions (anxiety disorders; obsessive compulsive disorder; depression; schizophrenia).
  • Conditions that impact memory and/or problem solving (stoke; dementias; head injury; developmental disabilities).

Given the prevalence of invisible disabilities, we should expect to interact with people who have them. To be most respectful to these individuals, I propose practicing “mindfulness.” When we’re interacting with others, we can pay attention, be responsive to their requests for assistance and refrain from judging based on appearances.

My second suggestion — and not everyone would agree — is that we err on the side of believing that most people do the best they can. Although there are certainly instances when individuals take advantage of others’ kindness, I prefer to believe that most of us don’t do that. If someone asks for extra help, or parks in that special parking spot, then I’m going to trust that they need to.

Barb Borg, Customer & Community Services Coordinator
Barb-Borg