Although most people know that there are just certain things you shouldn’t say to a disabled person, many people only acknowledge a person as disabled if they’re obviously disabled—you know, like using any kind of mobility aid. However, you often can’t tell that people have disabilities if they don’t "look disabled" (whatever that means).
So, what exactly is an invisible disability? Essentially, it’s any kind of physical or mental disability that you cannot physically see when you first meet someone. According to Disabled World, an invisible disability includes “disabilities that are not immediately apparent.” Most people with chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, hearing impairments and anywhere in between are considered to have an invisible disability.
Just as non-disabled people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so do people with disabilities. Not every disabled person is confined to a wheelchair 24/7, or at all. That’s right, we don’t all get a fancy wheelchair, that some members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan try to appropriate for the sake of "fashion."
In reality, people with invisible disabilities often feel invisible. There’s a common misconception that if you don’t have a limp or aren’t in a wheelchair, then you simply cannot be disabled. However, invisible disabilities are, in fact, legitimate disabilities and should be acknowledged as such.
If you’re lucky enough to meet someone who tells you that they have an invisible disability, you shouldn’t treat them differently than you did prior to knowing about their disability. Their disability status might be news to you, but that doesn’t mean they deserve or want your pity. If you treated them like a resilient person before, don’t abruptly act like they’re this fragile human now.
Besides refraining from coddling people with any kind of disability (unless they ask you to, because consent is vital in any kind of relationship or friendship), there are several things that you should never, EVER say to someone with an invisible disability. Even if your life depends on it, NEVER say any of the following to someone with an invisible disability.
1. “You’re so inspiring”
What exactly am I doing that’s inspiring? Beyond the fact that I have an uncommon invisible disability, I’m a pretty average college student. I avoid studying by binge-watching too much Netflix and binge-eating my weight in greasy foods, just like all 20-somethings.
Does this mean that absolutely no person with a disability can be inspiring? Hell no! After becoming disabled herself, Malvika Iyer became a successful disability rights activist to create better lives for other people with disabilities. And there are countless other disabled people, including those with invisible disabilities, who are using their voices as a platform for change to do some inspiring things. Regardless, what they are doing to change the world is what is actually inspiring—not their disability.
Unless you’re telling me that my flawless makeup is inspiring; then please continue.
2. “Have you tried…”
Yeah, my experienced medical professional overlooked your weird, holistic remedy of smearing turmeric on my joints, but I’ll definitely mention it to my doctor at my next check-up. The fact that there’s virtually no medical evidence that it can cure my condition will surely convince them to write me a new script.
What’s even worse is when someone suggests that you should “try thinking positively.” Oh, I should try thinking positively, huh? You mean I could’ve just been thinking positively this whole time and my disability would magically disappear? You were right, Aunt Iris, the pharmaceutical company is just out to profit off my illness, which totally explains why I’ve never heard of this revolutionary new medical treatment. You’re a lifesaver.
Seriously, unless you’re a medical professional who specializes in my particular illness, please don’t give me advice on what I should try out next to somehow rid myself of my incurable disease. Chances are, I’ve tried it already. I know that you think you’re being helpful, but you really aren’t.
3. “You look so healthy”
Gee, thanks. You might think you’re giving me a compliment when you tell me how healthy, alive or well I look, but you’re really not. While you may have the best intentions with your "flattery," pretty much everyone with an invisible disability has to endure this comment on a daily basis. Granted, we usually only have to deal with it after we reveal to you that we have a disability, which is all sorts of screwed up. I mean, do you go around to people you’ve never even met before and tell them that they look so healthy? No—that’s what I thought.
If you did, you might have people calling the cops saying there’s some kind of reincarnated Buffalo Bill at the bus station, telling them how healthy and full of life they look. Yet, here you are telling us how healthy we look mere days after we trusted you enough to tell you about our disability. Before you could even fathom that your bestie might have anything other than the occasional common cold, you never once reiterated how healthy we looked.
Seriously, what does healthy even look like? Regardless, saying that I look healthy is essentially your way of saying that you don’t think I have a disability. You’re basically trying to make me validate my own disability that I have already spent nearly a year getting properly diagnosed by numerous doctors. Sorry, but I’m not about to fax you my medical records.
Unless you’re telling me I look so healthy after I took my Humira shot, then I know for a fact that you’re lying. Depending on your relationship, your friend might enjoy the sarcasm in that scenario. Disabled people can have a sense of humor, too; after all, it’s one of our disabled superpowers.
Just don’t try to joke that we don’t have a real disability—that will never be funny.
4. “But you’re so young"
Thanks for reminding me that I have my whole life to look forward to crippling pain and being my doctor’s pin cushion every month for the rest of my life (at least it’s for science). But that’s the thing about disability: it can happen to anyone, regardless of age.
Acknowledging someone’s youth is typically a good thing; unless you have a disability, then suddenly the phrase “you’re so young” has a negative connotation. Instead of “you’re so young” implying that you can take on anything in the world, “you’re so young” takes on a darker tone. Suddenly, you can’t achieve as much, regardless of how young you are, because you have this disability holding you back. But what’s worse is that people are starting to pity you, because you’re so young and you have this ugly disability challenging what should be the best years of your life.
The pity remarks of “but you’re so young” only become more prevalent if you have a disease that’s typically associated with older people, like arthritis. I mean, when was the last time you’ve seen a commercial for an arthritis-based medication that featured a model who was younger than 75? Exactly—you’ve never seen one, which means it’s absolutely unheard of to have a 22-year-old with chronic arthritis of any kind.
Let’s face it. Your age doesn’t make a disability any worse, nor does it make it any less painful. So, stop associating someone’s age with their disability. The “but you’re so young” comments desperately need to stop.
5. “Stop being so lazy”
Just because I’m not visibly doubled over in pain doesn’t mean I’m being lazy when I actually do ask you for help. That’s the thing with people with disabilities: we often have one or two painful symptoms, especially those of us with chronic pain, but we put on a pretty face to hide our pain. Even if you couldn’t tell from our physical demeanor or our facial expression that we were in pain, do you know how many follow-up questions and gestures of pity we would get if we walked around on a daily basis shouting out our symptoms or our pain level on a scale of one-to-ten?
Regardless of the type of disability (or lack thereof), if someone asks you for help, then they clearly need some sort of assistance. Whether it’s emotional support, lifting a box or holding their hand while they walk down a hallway, nobody’s cry for help should be dismissed as them being feeble or simply being ‘lazy.’
6. “But you weren’t always disabled”
That’s right, Peggy, and you weren’t always a blonde. Like the power of box hair dye, people change and so does their health. Seriously though, just because someone isn’t disabled doesn’t mean they can’t develop a disability later in life.
This statement might seem harmless, but it can often be a terrible reminder for anyone who wasn’t always disabled.
Not everyone with an invisible disability, mental disability or visible disability was born with their disability. Even those of us who were born with disabilities have varying symptoms that can make us appear more or less disabled on a given day. After all, the severity of symptoms can change on a daily or even hourly basis.
7. “Do you really need to park in a handicap spot?”
Yes, but do you really need to be such an ass? So, before you start screaming at an innocent person with a disability, who has clearly left their vehicle in a handicap parking space with a handicap sticker hanging on their rearview mirror, you might want to remember that people with invisible disabilities exist.
Unless there’s some obscure black market for counterfeit disabled parking license plates and stickers that I’m clearly unaware of, then don’t be a parking lot vigilante who yells at people with disabilities. It isn’t a good look for anyone. Ultimately, you have to trust that a person’s handicap sticker was prescribed to them for a reason.
Even if someone might not have a physical limp or look disabled (whatever that even means), nobody has the right to question whether or not someone is disabled enough to actually be disabled. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a single certain way that people with disabilities are supposed to act or look. Sorry, not sorry that I don’t have the iconic zombie-walk-limp, but my back still hella hurts, so yes, I'm using my handicap sticker that I have every right to utilize.
Regardless, part of this dilemma could be blamed on the international symbol for disabled parking. After all, the graphic motif is, in fact, a person in a wheelchair. It doesn't really help that whenever you Google image search “disabled person” nearly every person is in a wheelchair or using another form of mobility device.
I get it, it’s an easy image to use as a visual interpretation. However, the fact of the matter is that very few Americans with a disability actually use some sort of mobility device. According to the 1994-1995 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), only 26 percent of disabled Americans actually use devices like canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Simply put, there are more disabled Americans who have invisible disabilities than those with visible disabilities. Yet, somehow everyone is so quick to force those of us with invisible disabilities to verify our disabilities.
Regardless, every disabled person, invisible or visible, has encountered some form of prejudice in their lifetime. Joni Eareckson Tada, International Disability expert, elaborates to the Invisible Disability Association, “People have such high expectations of folks like you [with invisible disabilities], like, ‘come on, get your act together.’ But they have such low expectations of folks like me in wheelchairs, as though it’s expected that we can’t do much.”
An anonymous senior at Iowa State University, who has atypical autism, or pervasive developmental disorder, says, “Having an invisible disability should be no excuse for you to expect anything less of yourself or for others to expect anything less from you, as a person. Just because most people don’t know that I have an autism spectrum disorder when they first meet me, doesn’t mean that they should treat me any differently after they find out. This should go without saying for any person who has a disability.”
There are stigmas about people with visible disabilities and people with invisible disabilities, and these stigmas need to stop. Like how certain articles about individuals who “overcome” their disabilities (despite still having a disability) are praised in our society, yet stories about someone with a disability who needs help and is actively getting help is shamed and ridiculed. Everyone handles disabilities differently, and nobody should shame them for it. This is probably why we tend to praise celebrities who open up about their mental health as being strong, but also demonize them for admitting that they need help in the first place (or for advocating awareness for a specific disability or condition). People with disabilities are just normal people who enjoy eating good food and watching television, just like literally everyone since TV was invented.
Seriously though, we all collectively need to stop treating people with disabilities like social recluses who can’t do anything or enjoy life. Just because someone uses a cane or someone comes out to you about their invisible disability doesn’t mean that your friendship dynamic needs to change.