Five things Friday roundup: Not all disabilities are visible

— Andrea De Avila

Two years ago, I was a guest in an episode of season two podcast of Holding it(,) Together. The episode was focused on Bodies And Joy. As I prepared for this article, I went ahead and gave the episode another listen. I did this with something very specific in mind: to hear if I ever identified as struggling with mental health issues or chronic pain. Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

I did, however, share a good chunk of my journey with pain, both mental and physical. I didn’t hide details, but I didn’t specifically identify as suffering from any sort of disability. Nevertheless, when you hear me describe how my life is affected by the afflictions I suffer from and the choices I’ve had to make to live in a way I can endure, work and find joy, you might wonder why I haven’t identified as disabled. 

To hint at an answer to that question, here are five things I would like you to know about non-visible disabilities.

1. Comorbidity

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Chronic pain and mental health disorders often occur together… [and] can contribute to and exacerbate the other. People living with chronic pain are at heightened risk for mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders… An estimated 35% to 45% of people with chronic pain experience depression… [which] can make a person more sensitive to pain.”

Comorbidity refers to two or more illnesses being experienced at the same time by an individual. For example, “Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders commonly occur at the same time as chronic pain from conditions like fibromyalgia, back problems, migraines and arthritis.”

2. Non-Visibility and High Functioning

According to the UK government’s disability unit blog, “Non-visible disabilities are named this way because you cannot always easily see the nature of the disability. Some people with non-visible disabilities might use mobility aids, whereas others will not.”

Sometimes people really can’t tell when a person is disabled because the person appears to be able to function relatively well. This is called high functioning, which indicates “noting or relating to a person with a disability, chronic illness, or mental health issue who is able to fulfill more activities of daily living than others with the same condition”; whereas non-visible disability simply identifies that a person struggles with a disability that is not immediately apparent to the eye. 

3. Skepticism and Shame

According to a British Parliament briefing, “It is estimated that 70-80% of disabilities are [non-visible] . . .  which are not limited to, but include: mental health conditions; autism and other neurodivergences, cognitive impairments; hearing, vision and speech impairments; and energy-limiting conditions (such as fibromyalgia).” Since a non-visible disability is not observable on the surface, individuals may face an uphill battle being believed and may even be disregarded when identifying as disabled.

Also, according to an article from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “The fear of being discredited or stigmatised can lead a person with a non-visible disability to conceal their disability. However, this could lead to the dilemma of them not receiving the support they need if they chose not to disclose their disability.”

4. Awareness

One way to curb this issue is to create awareness regarding non-visible disabilities. It most obviously won’t “fix” people struggling with non-visible disabilities, but it could sure make our lives a lot easier. To start, you could ask yourself to keep an open mind when you think of what the term “disabled” means to you. In real life, it might not always look like what you imagined. 

5. Jesus

I find solace in that many of Jesus’ miracles were healings of ailments that were non-visible: people who were possessed, a woman with an unstoppable bleeding that she would have certainly tried to conceal from the world, blind people, mute and deaf folks, etc. You did not have to be visibly disabled for Jesus to validate your struggle and your pain. I hope we can follow his example. 

Andrea De Avila

Andrea De Avila is an ordained minister with a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies from Canadian Mennonite University. Originally from Read More

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