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Visible and Invisible Disabilities

When we refer to a ‘visible’ disability, we are referring to a disability that presents itself in a physical form, to the naked eye. That means it’s often obvious that a person has a physical disability, but some conditions are not so obvious to spot.

You may have heard some disabilities being described to as ‘invisible’ and this term refers to the conditions that are not so obvious. This means that when you look at or communicate with the person, you may assume they are fit and well as they don’t appear to have a disability.

That’s why it’s important to understand the difference between the two. People who have an invisible disability often claim that they feel others do not always believe they are disabled because their disability isn’t easily noticeable.

Visible disabilities

A visible disability is a disability that is obvious to the naked eye and easily noticed by others when they look at or talk to the person with the disability. For example, a person may not be able to physically move in the same way as others, may have a missing limb or facial feature, or have an obvious tremor or shake, all of which are noticeable to others.

Sometimes, a visible disability is easier to explain or accept, because there is evidence of the disability. This shouldn’t be the case, as many people who have invisible disabilities often feel discriminated against and feel that others do not believe they have a disability.

Examples of common visible disabilities include:

Down Syndrome – This is a congenital condition. There are often characteristics that indicate a person has this condition, such as a larger tongue, a flattened skull, and folds to the inner corners of the eyes. They are also often shorter in height and often have limited social skills and intellectual abilities.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – This is caused when the mother of a child drinks throughout her pregnancy and this causes physical, behavioural and learning problems for their child.

Muscular Dystrophy – This is a genetic condition that causes muscle weakness. It’s a progressive condition that gets worse over time, and symptoms can become life-threatening when they affect the heart muscles or the muscles we use for breathing.

Cerebral Palsy – This is a motor disability due to the brain and muscles being affected which affects the person’s ability to maintain their posture, balance and movement. Cerebral indicates issues with part of the brain, and palsy refers to muscle weakness. This is the most common motor disability in childhood.

Multiple Sclerosis – This is a progressive condition that damages the spinal cord and also the nerve cells in the brain. There are many symptoms of this, such as numbness, speech issues, vision issues, tiredness and fatigue, and muscular coordination.

Autism – This is a condition which means the brain works differently to others. It’s not a condition that requires a cure, but people who have autism may need support. A person with autism may find it difficult to understand feelings, may find bright lights or noises overwhelming and stressful, or may think or do the same things repeatedly. They may also struggle with unfamiliar situations or social events as these could make them anxious or upset and they could also have difficulty interacting with others. Sometimes, it may take a person with autism a little longer to understand information too.

Amputations – This is when limbs have been surgically removed, such as an arm or a leg. This makes it difficult for a person to move or complete tasks in the same way as others. Limbs are removed for various reasons, such as an accident that results in trauma to a limb, a limb being deformed and causing issues, or as a result of a severe infection or gangrene.

Paralysis – This is when a person loses the ability to move some of their body or all of it. It can affect the face, hands, arms or legs (or both), or one side of the body. Sometimes the affected part of the body is numb, painful, tingly, floppy or stiff, which can make certain activities difficult.

Epilepsy – This is a common neurological disorder that impacts the brain. It causes people to have seizures; a seizure is a burst of electrical activity within the brain that temporarily disorientates the person. There are different types of seizures, but people can experience symptoms such as jerking or shaking (sometimes referred to as a ‘fit’), they may lose awareness, become stiff, experience strange sensations when it comes to smells, tastes or tingling in arms and legs, and some people collapse. It’s not uncommon for people to pass out and not have any memory of what has happened to them.

Invisible disabilities

It’s believed that up to 70% of disabilities are hidden or invisible, so it’s more important than ever to increase our awareness and understanding when it comes to all disabilities.

Many people with invisible disabilities feel uncomfortable discussing their condition as they find it difficult to explain. Others may think they are acting strange or ‘off’, but it can be really difficult for them to deal with their disability, and the reactions or lack of understanding shown by others can make the whole situation even worse.

A person who has an invisible illness may think, hear, speak and interact with others differently. As we don’t always know a person has a disability, it can be challenging for someone to react appropriately. The best way is to improve our awareness and knowledge of invisible disabilities, and to adopt a sense of openness when it comes to all disabilities.

Many developmental and mental health issues are invisible illnesses, but there are a few other common conditions too.

Invisible disabilities include:

Bipolar – This is a personality disorder that affects a person’s mood, and their personality can swing from one extreme to the other. It means that in one instance, they may be extremely happy and then the next moment they could be angry or depressed.

Anxiety – This is a perfectly normal feeling, which can sometimes become overwhelming and constant, which causes a person to blow a situation out of proportion. Anxiety is often a different experience for everyone, but most people suffer with feelings of fear, worry and unease. If it becomes too overwhelming, a person may feel they have to avoid certain situations and their feelings can make it difficult for them to communicate with others or live their daily lives in the same way as other people.

Depression – This is a mood disorder, and its most common symptom is when a person feels sad for most of the time. Many people report that they lack interest in life, and although sadness is a natural reaction, they struggle to come back from those feelings as they last much longer and feel much more severe. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness all stem from the sadness, and without support, a person can find themselves unable to care for themselves properly and can struggle to communicate or interact with others. This can result in the development of destructive behaviours, such as self-harm and suicide.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – This is a neurological condition that causes a person to be hyperactive and impulsive. Common symptoms include being distracted easily, being unable to pay attention for long periods of time, having a poor working memory, feeling the need to fidget, talk or move, and often acting without thinking. This means they are forgetful, sometimes come across as being impatient and rude, act on their impulse, and are unable to focus for long periods of time, which affects their life and work or education.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder– This is often referred to as OCD. It’s a mental health condition, where a person develops compulsive behaviours and has regular obsessive thoughts. It can develop at any age, but symptoms regularly start around puberty, although they may not be obvious until the person reaches adulthood. This condition is distressing for sufferers and can impact their life because their fears take over their life and prevent them from doing the things they want to do. Their feelings cause anxiety, unease, and sometimes disgust as they don’t want to have these obsessive thoughts. They are unable to control their compulsions, which are often brought on by their negative thoughts and feelings.


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