What are Invisible Disabilities?

Invisible Disability, or hidden disability, is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. Invisible disability, or hidden disability, are defined as disabilities that are not immediately apparent. Some people with visual or auditory disabilities who do not wear glasses or hearing aids, or discreet hearing aids, may not be obviously disabled. Some people who have vision loss may wear contacts.

A sitting disability is another category of invisible impairments; sitting problems are usually caused by chronic back pain. Those with joint problems or chronic pain may not use mobility aids on some days, or at all. Although the disability creates a challenge for the person who has it, the reality of the disability can be difficult for others to recognize or acknowledge. Others may not understand the cause of the problem, if they cannot see evidence of it in a visible way.

People with some kinds of invisible disabilities, such as chronic pain or some kind of sleep disorder, are often accused of faking or imagining their disabilities. These symptoms can occur due to chronic illness, chronic pain, injury, birth disorders, etc. and are not always obvious to the onlooker.

Invisible Disabilities are certain kinds of disabilities that are not immediately apparent to others. It is estimated that 10% of people in the U.S. have a medical condition which could be considered a type of invisible disability.

Nearly one in two people in the U.S. has a chronic medical condition of one kind or another, but most of these people are not considered to be disabled, as their medical conditions do not impair their normal everyday activities. These people do not use an assistive device and most look and act perfectly healthy.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) an individual with a disability is a person who: Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Woman with migraine sitting on a bed holding a white mug with her head resting on her hands and knees.
Woman with migraine sitting on a bed holding a white mug with her head resting on her hands and knees.

Generally seeing a person in a wheelchair, wearing a hearing aid, or carrying a white cane tells us a person may be disabled. But what about invisible disabilities that make daily living a bit more difficult for many people worldwide?

Invisible disabilities can include chronic illnesses such as renal failure, diabetes, and sleep disorders if those diseases significantly impair normal activities of daily living.

For example there are people with visual or auditory impairments who do not wear hearing aids or eye glasses so they may not seem to be obviously impaired. Those with joint conditions or problems who suffer chronic pain may not use any type of mobility aids on good days, or ever.

Another example is Fibromyalgia which is now understood to be the most common cause of chronic musculoskeletal pain. Sources estimate between 3 and 26 million Americans suffer from this hidden condition.

Other Types of Invisible Disabilities

  • Chronic Pain: A variety of conditions may cause chronic pain. A few of those reasons may be back problems, bone disease, physical injuries, and any number of other reasons. Chronic pain may not be noticeable to people who do not understand the victims specific medical condition.
  • Chronic Fatigue: This type of disability refers to an individual who constantly feels tired. This can be extremely debilitating and affect every aspect of a persons every day life.
  • Mental Illness: There are many mental illnesses that do qualify for disability benefits. Some examples are depression, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, agoraphobia, and many others. These diseases can also be completely debilitating to the victim, and can make performing everyday tasks extremely difficult, if not impossible.
  • Chronic Dizziness: Often associated with problems of the inner ear, chronic dizziness can lead to impairment when walking, driving, working, sleeping, and other common tasks.

People with psychiatric disabilities make up a large segment of the invisibly-disabled population covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Invisible disabilities can also include chronic illnesses such as renal failure, diabetes, and sleep disorders if those diseases significantly impair normal activities of daily living. If a medical condition does not impair normal activities, then it is not considered a disability.

96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with an illness that is invisible.

Many people living with a hidden physical disability or mental challenge are still able to be active in their hobbies, work and be active in sports. On the other hand, some struggle just to get through their day at work and some cannot work at all.

List of SOME Invisible Disabilities

U.S. Invisible Disability Statistics

About 10% of Americans have a medical condition which could be considered an invisible disability. 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with a condition that is invisible. These people do not use a cane or any assistive device and act as if they didn’t have a medical condition. About 25% of them have some type of activity limitation, ranging from mild to severe; the remaining 75% are not disabled by their chronic conditions. Although the disability creates a challenge for the person who has it, the reality of the disability can be difficult for others to recognize or acknowledge. Others may not understand the cause of the problem, if they cannot see evidence of it in a visible way.

Invisible Disability in Society

Invisible disabilities are the most common type of disability among college students. For example, students with learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and/or psychiatric disabilities may request accommodations even though they do not appear to have a disability. There are numerous other hidden or invisible disabilities such as heart condition, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Seizure Disorder.

A recent scheme known as the Sunflower Lanyard Program has been launched in th U.K. The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower purpose aims to help others identify when support may be needed for those with disabilities such as autism, dementia, anxiety, or other conditions that may not be immediately obvious to other people.

A growing number of organizations, governments, and institutions are implementing policies and regulations to accommodate persons with invisible disabilities. Governments and school boards have implemented screening tests to identify students with learning disabilities, as well as other invisible disabilities, such as vision or hearing difficulties, or problems in cognitive ability, motor skills, or social or emotional development. If a hidden disability is identified, resources can be used to place a child in a special education program that will help them progress in school.

Dogs for Bipolar Disorder

Service dogs have a long history of providing assistance to people with physical challenges and are increasingly used to aid those with psychiatric challenges. Psychiatric service dogs are extensively trained to perform specific tasks to meet the individualized needs of their handler and are permitted access to public places in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).1

Psychiatric service dogs can be trained to assist people living with bipolar disorder as well as other mental health challenges, including autism, schizophreniapost-traumatic stress disorderdepression, and panic disorder. The tasks a service dog is trained to perform to aid someone living with bipolar disorder ​depend on the individual’s circumstances and personal challenges and needs.

The Role of Service Dogs for Bipolar Disorder

The ultimate function of a psychiatric service dog is to alleviate or diminish the negative effects of bipolar disorder on the handler’s life. Examples of tasks a dog might be trained to perform for its human partner include:

  • Bring medication or remind their partner to take prescribed medicine at a specific time(s)
  • Awaken their partner at a specific time each day
  • Remind their partner to go to bed at a specific time to keep sleep cycles regular
  • Bring a portable phone to their partner or call 9-1-1 if the handler exhibits behaviors that might indicate a manic episode or severe depression
  • Interrupt potentially dangerous behaviors in their partner by nudging, nagging, or distracting with play
  • Alert the handler to the telephone, doorbell, or smoke alarm if their partner is asleep or possibly sedated due to medication
  • Calm or interrupt hypomanic or manic behaviors by leaning into their partner, or placing their head in the handler’s lap
  • Provide a link to reality if their partner experiences delusions during a manic episode2

While not considered a service dog function per se, the emotional support provided by a canine helper is often as valuable as the tasks the animal performs.

The presence of the dog can also help ground an individual with bipolar disorder and introduce a sense of stability and routine.

Laws Relating to Service Dogs

It is important to note that to qualify for the protections and allowances of the ADA, both the individual and the canine must meet specific criteria. In short, an individual must have a disability and a service dog must be specifically trained to meet the needs imposed by that disability.

  • An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
  • The ADA defines a service animal like a dog individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If a dog meets this definition, it is considered a service animal under the ADA, regardless of whether it has been licensed or certified by a state or local government.3

Importantly, a psychiatric service dog differs from an emotional support dog, also called a comfort dog. While emotional support dogs certainly provide love, companionship, and comfort to their human partners, they are not trained to perform specific tasks that aid the handler in daily functioning. As such, emotional support dogs are not covered under the ADA.3

Other Considerations

If you’re living with bipolar disorder and considering getting a psychiatric service dog or an emotional support dog, talk with your doctor to determine what type of canine companion is best for you. A psychiatric service dog involves a considerable financial commitment because of the extensive training required, which may take up to two years to complete. Depending on your specific needs, however, you may consider this an invaluable investment.