The Unique Struggle of Having an Invisible Disability

Experiences of People with Invisible Disabilities Often Go Unnoticed

student handing in test to teacher
What are invisible disabilities and how can you help people with these disabilities cope?. Hero Images/Getty Images

What is an Invisible Disability?

What's an invisible disability? The term simply refers to disabilities that cannot readily be seen. People with learning disabilities in reading, math, writing and auditory processing are sometimes characterized as having invisible disabilities. But these individuals may struggle just as much as their counterparts with obvious disabilities. Learn more about the challenges they face and the support they need with this review of invisible learning disorders.

What Makes People With Invisible Learning Disabilities Unique?

People with invisible learning disorders are unique because they don't stand out from typical learners even though they may be struggling in silence. They look like everyone else and have no physical disorders requiring visible supports such as walkers, wheelchairs, or hearing aids. Like their peers without disabilities, they can walk, run, and participate in sports.

Why Are Invisible Disabilities a Problem?

While invisible learners may look like everyone else, this isn't necessarily an advantage. In fact, their similarities to their typical peers may pose additional challenges to them. That's because the effect of their disabilities may not be seen initially. A teacher may assume a child with a writing disorder is typical until the student hands in his first essay. Even then, the teacher might jump to the conclusion that the seemingly typical student did a poor job writing because of laziness, unaware that the youngster's disability affects all aspects of his life, including how he learns, works, and functions.

Likewise, a child who has a problem with auditory processing may be accused of not listening, and even punished for something he has no control over.

When invisible disabilities go undiagnosed, others may perceive the individual as misbehaving or being uncooperative. When silent learning disorders are diagnosed, uninformed people may accuse the person of malingering or faking the disability.

They may refuse to meet the individual's special needs because they don't understand the level of the disability in question.

Of course, addressing behavior related to a disability as misbehavior only compounds the problem.

The Advantages of Invisible Disabilities

Some people with learning disabilities appreciate the ability to "blend in with the crowd" so their disabilities are hidden. They enjoy the fact that in non-academic activities, such as sports, community activities, church groups and volunteer activities, they can participate as effectively or more so than others.

Without the obvious disability of a hearing aid or a wheelchair, these children may find it easier to interact with peers who do not have a disability.

The problem is that it can go both ways, and as relationships go, it can be hard to know which way it will go for any one child. Some children will thrive by being able to blend in, whereas others, their disability compounded by misunderstanding on the part of teachers and peers, will end up having to cope with more than the disability alone.

Supporting People with Invisible Disabilities

The steps below will allow you to give people with invisible learning disorders the support they need.

  • Listen to the person with a disability and follow her lead in relating to her.
  • Recognize that some people with invisible disabilities prefer not to discuss their disability and would be mortified if you tried to talk with them about it. Again, follow their lead.
  • If the person needs help, ask if and how you can assist.
  • Learn about their specific type of learning disability.
  • If you are a parent or teacher, know what the child's skill levels are. Try to keep work demands at and just above his current skill level. This will keep the child challenged without reaching the frustrating, shut-down stage. This will also help you realistically evaluate the child's effort.
  • If you are the employer of a person with invisible disabilities, learn how to manage disabilities in the workplace.

Talking to People About Invisible Disabilities

In our society we do a good job of ignoring the elephant in the room. People vary considerably in how much they wish to share about their disability. If you are following her lead, and it appears she would be mortified to talk, leave it alone. On the other hand, if she is willing to talk, be an open ear. People with invisible disabilities are often misunderstood, and giving her a chance to let you know you see what she is coping with may help her feel less alone in a world that is so perfection driven.

Sources:

Peltopuro, M., Ahonen, T., Kaartinen, J., Seppala, H., and V. Narhi. Borderline Intellectual Functioning: A Systematic Literature Review. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 2014. 52(6):419-43.

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