What Are Invisible Disabilities?

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A client sits in a chair in her counselor’s office.

If a person misses multiple days of work because of influenza, an employer likely will understand. After all, no one wants to spread the flu throughout the workplace, and the symptoms are fairly clear. But what if someone repeatedly calls in sick because of sheer exhaustion, an undiagnosed condition frequently referred to as chronic fatigue disorder? With few visible symptoms, that person may risk losing his or her job if an employer is doubtful of the condition or simply cannot afford to be short-staffed so regularly.

This challenge is one of many that counselors may encounter when working with a client who lives with an invisible disability. An online master’s in counseling program can help mental health professionals learn what invisible disabilities are and how to best help clients deal with them.

What Are Some Invisible Disabilities?

Also called hidden or non-visible disabilities (NVD), invisible disabilities are conditions that significantly impair daily living activities yet are not immediately apparent to others. It’s a broad term that encompasses a wide range of health concerns and disorders.

Roughly 10% of Americans have a medical condition that could be considered an invisible disability, according to a review by advocacy group Disabled World. Some invisible disabilities are:

  • Sitting disabilities. Chronic back pain may cause a person to experience severe discomfort when sitting for long periods or on hard surfaces.
  • Auditory disabilities. People who experience hearing loss but do not use hearing aids, or who use discreet hearing aids, may not appear to others to live with a disability.
  • Visual disabilities. People who experience vision loss but do not wear glasses, or who may wear contact lenses, may similarly appear to live without a disability.

Often, invisible disabilities are chronic illnesses. According to Disabled World, 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with an invisible illness. These include:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Arthritis
  • Endometriosis
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Renal failure

Invisible disabilities can also include disorders that affect learning and cognition, including:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
  • Dyslexia

Challenges of Invisible Disabilities

People with invisible disabilities also often endure a lack of recognition or acknowledgment from other people about their disability. This is on top of the challenges they already face just by having a disability. This can result in mental hardship and dangerous physical situations, as well as social costs.

Hardship and Danger

Living without recognition and support when disabled can be frustrating and dangerous. Consider an airplane passenger with an invisible disability who can’t hear verbal instructions given by a flight attendant. This is why airlines require people with invisible disabilities to disclose their conditions in advance of any emergency — but not all employers take this proactive step to support people with invisible disabilities.

Social Costs

For someone who has an invisible disability, a lack of understanding by the public can be detrimental to that person’s social standing. Students with an invisible disability may not receive as much patience, support, or accommodation from teachers compared to students who have clearly visible disabilities.

Because their disabilities go unnoticed, people with invisible disabilities may be misunderstood by others as unprofessional or lazy, which can hurt their employment or social prospects.

Effects of Invisible Disabilities

Even though the effects of an invisible disabling condition can range from mild to severe, the common thread is that people who suffer from them often don’t look sick. While this perception could be considered positive, it can cause problems. When outsiders perceive an individual as healthy, they may downplay the disabled person’s condition or even refuse to believe there is an illness. That’s why it is important to understand what invisible disabilities are.

In an interview with The Atlantic, 24-year-old operating room nurse at Penn Medicine, Austin Haynes, shared how he struggled for years with undiagnosed ADHD.

“Why did I have to not excel in school even though I knew I was smart enough? I knew I had the capability to do so much better,” Haynes said. He attributed the invisibility of his disability to unconscious biases teachers and administrators may have had about what a disabled person looks like. He also thinks race played a role. Groups that are already subject to racist or sexist stereotypes often have an even harder time finding acceptance for their invisible disabilities.

That lack of public understanding, though, certainly doesn’t negate the very real effects of invisible disabilities. The Invisible Disabilities Association reported that the physical expressions of invisible conditions can vary greatly. Frequent “invisible” symptoms include migraines, joint and muscle pain, and fatigue. Living with constant pain or exhaustion with no end in sight takes both a physical and emotional toll.

Although suicide risk has been associated with individuals who live with invisible disabilities, it is not purely a result of depression. Even when people are not clinically depressed, they may become suicidal if they feel their condition is untreatable. Hopelessness is an essential feature of depression. Many invisible disabilities are chronic, with no known cure. Some patients may have limited or no options in terms of treatment plans. Not knowing if they ever will be healed or capable of resuming their normal activities can tempt ill people to give up.

While counseling is not a cure for these conditions, individuals may seek counselors to help them deal with their invisible disabilities. Because many of these conditions can lead to limited mobility or reduced energy, clients may lose their job or have to skip social outings. This can lead to feelings such as failure or isolation that also can manifest as depression.

Counseling Those Without Outward Symptoms

One of the most important things counselors can do is to believe their clients. It’s likely that they already have colleagues, friends, and family members who question whether they really are ill or who try to suggest how to solve their problems with simple diet or lifestyle changes. Counselors should listen attentively to their clients’ stories and demonstrate empathy for their difficulties and struggles.

It is statistically likely that many clients who seek counseling will suffer from invisible disabilities. With this in mind, counselors should consider the following recommendations to demonstrate they understand what invisible disabilities are and provide inclusive and equitable support.

  • Read existing literature. Staying up to date on disability research, especially research conducted by disabled researchers, can widen a counselor’s scope of practice to support people with different forms of invisible disability.
  • Design spaces for inclusivity. When working with clients who are living with an invisible disability, focus on creating a relaxing space – one that makes them feel welcomed, accepted, and empowered. Consider sensitivities to noises, smells, and lights. Avoid the use of candles or anything with a strong scent. Consider using a dimmer light bulb or closing the window blinds.
  • Conduct a comprehensive assessment of clients’ conditions. Counselors are trained to engage in biopsychosocial aspects of wellness and to work in multidisciplinary teams of experts from other areas of health care. This competence positions counselors as positive agents of change when working with people who suffer from invisible disabilities.

Cultivate an Inclusive, Equitable Counseling Practice

When disabilities go unrecognized by others, they do further harm to individuals who already deserve social support and understanding. To create a world that is more inclusive and equitable, counselors should design their practice for people with disabilities — visible and invisible — to provide effective services to the widest range of people possible.

Do you aspire to be a counselor? Learn more about Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program. Through an advanced curriculum that blends online learning with real-world clinical experiences, Bradley University prepares both aspiring and experienced counselors for distinctive careers helping others.


Recommended Readings:

How to Become a Counselor

Top Counseling Careers: Job Outlook, Salaries, and Qualifications

Types of Counseling Careers



The Atlantic, “You Have to Scream Out”

Disabled World, Invisible Disabilities: List and General Information

Invisible Disabilities Association, Learning About IDA

Invisible Disability Project, Our Mission

The New York Times, “We’re 20 Percent of America, and We’re Still Invisible”

The New York Times, “What Happens When You’re Disabled but Nobody Can Tell”

Understood, “Understanding Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace”