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Often when we think of someone living with a disability, we think of those with ‘visible’ physical disabilities like those requiring wheelchairs or a guide dog. But there are also lots of other disabilities, invisible disabilities, that aren’t so easy to identify.

What are invisible disabilities?

The term invisible disability refers to diseases or injuries that aren’t always obvious to an onlooker. These can include chronic pain and fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, hearing and vision impairments, learning differences or mental health disorders.

It can be a child living with autism or Asperger’s, an adult recovering from a brain injury, or someone undergoing treatment for a chronic autoimmune disorder. All these disabilities can severely impact a person’s ability to go about their day-to day activities, limit their employment opportunities, and affect their social life.

How common are invisible disabilities?

Because invisible disabilities cover a broad spectrum of diseases and conditions, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly who or how many people suffer from an invisible disability. According to The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in five Australian’s are living with a disability. Of this number the Australia Bureau of Statistics reports that almost one-quarter (23.2%) of all people with disability reported a mental or behavioural disorder as their main condition.

Another 700,000 Australians are said to live with a brain injury, while approximately 1 in 70 Australians have been identified as on the autism spectrum.

The most important thing anyone can do to help those living with invisible disabilities is to show patience and understanding. For many people living with invisible disabilities they are often questioned when using accessible parking or disabled facilities. This can often cause frustration and embarrassment as they are forced to defend and explain their illness – often to strangers!

It’s important not to judge or jump to conclusions when you see someone using these facilities remembering that somebody using an accessible parking space may suffers from severe arthritis or chronic pain., or someone who appears able-bodied may use a accessible bathroom because they have a colostomy bag and need the private hand basin in the stall with them to clean up

Here are four things about invisible disabilities you need to know.

Some of your favourite celebs have an invisible disability

Did you know that some of the biggest stars that we all love and admire have invisible illnesses and disabilities?

Here are just a few examples: Selena Gomez has Lupus, Jack Osbourne has MS, Demi Lovato has bipolar disorder, Little Wayne has epilepsy, Morgan Freeman has a chronic pain condition (fibromyalgia), Richard Gere and Ben Stiller have had Lyme Disease, Halle Berry has diabetes, and Amanda Seyfried has anxiety.

One thing’s for sure: this hasn’t stopped any of these people from carving out a successful career in their chosen fields. The best bit: they have chosen to speak openly about their conditions, helping to raise awareness and combat stigma around invisible illness and disability.

People with invisible disabilities are not ‘faking it’

This one is really important – because unfortunately people with invisible disabilities are often accused of faking or imagining their symptoms – the phrases “but you don’t look sick” or “you don’t look like you have a disability” are said far too often!

Imagine having a very real diagnosis, and being unable to convince people that you’re not just a ‘hypochondriac’, or ‘being lazy’? Wouldn’t be nice would it. For these people, being met with scepticism that they’re legit is one of the hardest things of all. And what makes this worse, is it also stops people from talking about their disability or downplaying their own experiences – which just perpetuates the invisibility and stigma even more!

So, while it can be very easy to think, ‘I had something similar and I just got over it’ or ‘it can’t be that bad’, remember there can be a lot more to what’s going on than meets the eye.

Accessible toilets are not just for people who use a wheelchair

There are actually so many reasons why someone who doesn’t “look like they have a disability” might need to use the accessible toilet – and they shouldn’t be given death stares for doing so or feel like they need to explain themselves.

For example, maybe they have a colostomy bag (where bowel motions are collected in a disposable bag) and need the extra space and running water. Maybe they have an inflammatory bowel disease and are finding it difficult to hold on. Or maybe they have a disability that makes balancing tricky and they need to use handrails.

Whatever the reason – all these people have the right to use the accessible amenities. So, before you roll your eyes next time someone skips the bathroom queue for the accessible toilet, just remember that it’s not just those with physical disabilities who need these facilities.

Also remember, while it’s not illegal to use one an accessible toilet if you don’t have a disability, if you don’t need to use one, leave them free for those who do.

Same goes for accessible parking

While it’s illegal to park in an accessible parking space without a permit (and you’ll be up for a hefty fine if you do) some people have taken it upon themselves to become parking vigilantes.

The issue here is that these vigilantes think they’re doing the right thing by catching people out, but they often misread the situation – shaming those with invisible disabilities of cheating the system despite having an appropriate permit.

But there are so many reasons why someone might need a more accessible space than a wheelchair (think: prosthetic limb, breathing difficulties, mobility issues, etc).

So, don’t try and police the parking spaces yourself – leave it up to those who are qualified to do so.

Respectful communication

The use of inclusive and non-discriminatory language helps to avoid assumptions and misunderstandings and promote respectful relationships.

If you are new to International Day of People with Disability, it might be helpful to get a few tips on communicating effectively and respectfully about disability.

There is no ‘right’ thing to say in every circumstance and above all you should be yourself and talk as you would to any person. There are many views on language in the disability community and this can be a way to start the conversation.

Avoiding assumptions and misunderstandings

  • Do not focus on the disability, but do not be afraid to refer to it if necessary.
  • Empathise with the person rather than sympathise; people with disability want to be accepted not pitied.
  • Avoid assumptions: for instance, people with disability are not necessarily on income support. Many work in a range of professions, pay taxes, have families and relationships and have a range of interests beyond disability.
  • Avoid using medical terminology or assuming that a disability is experienced as an illness. Many disabilities are stable and do not automatically involve problems with general health.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask if the person has any individual requirements or to offer assistance if warranted but don’t be offended if the person says they don’t need support.
  • Don’t assume that everyone with a disability is an expert on a range of disability issues or accessibility.
  • Understand that it is not the disability that can be disabling but a lack of accessibility i.e. buildings that only have steps.

Effective language

  • When referring to an individual’s disability many people would suggest you emphasise the person first. The usual terms are ‘people with disability’, ‘person with physical disability’, ‘person who uses a wheelchair’ and ‘person with an intellectual disability’ or ‘person with an acquired disability’. There are also people who strongly embrace their identity as disabled – language is personal and it’s OK to ask people what they prefer.
  • Don’t use statements with a negative meaning such as invalid, incapacitated, slow, handicapped, retard or ‘confined’ to a wheelchair.
  • Avoid clichés and portraying the person as a victim. e.g. referring to people as ‘amazing’, ‘inspirational’ or ‘special’.
  • Do use words such as ‘look’ and ‘see’ as vision impaired people understand such concepts and include these words in conversation.
  • Avoid phrases such as ‘the blind’ and ‘the disabled’ — although people may have similar disabilities, they are unique individuals. Also don’t forget that people can experience the same disability very differently.
  • If writing about people with disability, use the same titles and prefixes you would with anyone else. Do not refer to adults with intellectual disability the same way as you would children, for example, captioning a photo ‘Mr Smith and Bob, who has a disability’.

Respectful terms

  • People with disability; Person with disability
  • Person who is blind; Person with low vision; Vision impaired; Person with vision impairment
  • Person who is Deaf; Auslan user; Deaf or hearing impaired;
  • Person with hearing impairment
  • Person of short stature
  • Person with a speech impairment; Speech impaired
  • Person with mental illness; Person with psychiatric disability
  • Wheelchair user; Person with mobility or physical disability
  • Person with an intellectual disability; Person with a developmental disability
  • Person with a learning disability; Person with a cognitive disability
  • Accessible parking
  • Person with lived experience