What does it mean to be “invisibly” disabled?


You may hear the term invisibly disabled and wonder, what does that really mean?

This term refers to the difference between those disabilities which a person can observe in another person, due to the accommodations a disabled person uses, and disabilities which are not visible at a quick glance. For example, we can “see” a wheelchair, a service dog, or a personal assistant which makes the fact that a person has a disability ‘visible’.

access cane

Socially, we expect to ‘see’ when someone is disabled and it is not uncommon for people to assume that when they cannot ‘see’ a clear sign of a disability, then the person who for example, parks with a disabled placard but walks away from their car “isn’t really disabled.” Disability comes in many forms and the majority of them cannot be seen by glancing at another person.

[note: accessible parking placards are not given to everyone who is disabled; if they were then closer to 20% of all cars would have them – http://www.hhs.gov/od/about/fact_sheets/prevalenceandimpact.html  .]

Invisible disabilities which are most common among college students tend to include the following: autism spectrum/Asperger’s; attention deficit/hyper active disorder; anxiety spectrum disorder including obsessive compulsive and post traumatic stress disorder; affective disorders including depression;dyslexia; dyscalculia;  language processing disorder;  learning disability.

Additionally, universities are seeing increasing numbers of students living with Crohn’s disease, closed head injuries, diabetes, epilepsy, and multiple, sever allergies.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of all invisible disabilities – just the most common among the population of college students. There are two reasons I point this out.


First, having any of these disabilities does not preclude a person from being successful in college. And secondly, it is helpful for students with these disabilities to realize that they are not alone on their campuses — other students live with similar disabilities and disability service providers, professors, and administrators are learning about how best to accommodate the range of learning styles in a classroom or dormitory hall that students will have.

This remains a challenging but exciting time for students with invisible disabilities. Every year new opportunities develop, new support technologies are made available, and public awareness grows a little more. College continues to become more accessible for more people.



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