Invisible Disability Stigma

If your reflex is to imagine a wheelchair user when you hear or read about people with disabilities, there are several poignant issues that can pass you by. There are plenty of disabilities not readily apparent to the onlooker, these are termed “invisible disabilities” or “hidden disabilities”. They include some chronic pain conditions and mental illnesses, to name just two broad categories. For some people, the visibility of their disability fluctuates with the severity of symptoms on any given day.

 

Not everyone with a disability, visible or invisible, is prevented from working. For those who are however, most developed countries provide a State benefit of some kind. A recent post discussed the design of these benefits.

 

People with invisible disabilities are often subjected to harsh judgement for not working. The reason they don’t work may not be common knowledge and some people may assume they are long-term unemployed by choice or doubt the validity of their disability because it’s not apparent to them as casual onlookers.

 

Amidst the criticism from relatives or acquaintances, there is also the dreaded question from strangers; “What do you do?” Anyone who has ever been unemployed for even the shortest length of time knows the discomfort this question can cause. For those with invisible disabilities, the choice is between deception, deflection or facing potential judgement as an indolent fraud.

 

Disability is not shameful, but social stigma is humiliating.

 

The decision to grant state disability benefit involves the consideration of their full medical file, communication with their own doctor and any consultants, in some cases an interview and/or a home visit (which may or may not be announced in advance).  After all of this, the benefit was granted. Yet, these people still face suspicion from people who have no access or right to that wealth of personal information.

 

There are systemic issues that unnecessarily expose people to these social difficulties. The following section provides some examples from just one sector of the public infrastructure, public transport. However, it’s important to note that people with invisible disabilities face well documented challenges and prejudicial preconceptions in many areas of life, including healthcare, education, employment, socialising and even parking. Parents of children with invisible disabilities also encounter negative attitudes and judgements.

 

It becomes clear that two problems exist. The root problem is this; people with invisible disabilities face prejudice and social stigma. The secondary problem is that many areas of public infrastructure are entirely insensitive to that experience.

 

Public Transport

Some governments provide free public travel passes to people with disabilities, visible and invisible, in order to supplement the State benefit or meet additional needs. Passengers with disabilities usually have to display these passes either when purchasing a ticket or in lieu of one.

For those with invisible disabilities, having to proclaim their disability status in public can expose them to prejudicial hostility and social exclusion or disapproval. So long as this remains the case, these passenger transactions should be made as smoothly as possible and restricted to the necessary personnel. Disability is not shameful, but social stigma is humiliating.

 

Readers can investigate the travel passes and tickets provided to persons with disabilities in their own territory and compare them to the suggested layout below.

I’ve witnessed the queue-halting scrutiny of a travel pass when the passenger has no visible disability. And I have heard drivers demand identification from persons they had assumed were not the rightful owners of such passes because their disability was not visible.

 

To verify the authenticity of a pass is part of their duty and rightfully so. However when it comes at the expense of a person’s privacy and results in public humiliation, I have to wonder if there’s not a better way?

 

In the ideal world, all free travel passes would superficially resemble common forms of travel card, being similar in shape and size, though clearly marked for drivers/conductors as a free travel card. In addition, a photograph should be included on the card, rather than requiring the passenger to produce separate photographic identification on demand. This also reduces the prevalence of travel card theft and subsequent fraud.

 

Furthermore, such travel cards should be compatible with electronic turnstiles and entry points, if any exist within the infrastructure. This removes the necessity for persons with disabilities, visible or invisible, to request assistance from staff. For those with invisible disabilities, requesting special assistance not only separates them out from others, often unnecessarily, but it also forces them to disclose their disability to any travelling companions. While invisible disabilities are still publicly regarded with such suspicion, that disclosure to people who are not in official positions, should be a choice.

 

Finally, tickets provided to persons with disabilities should superficially resemble other tickets. Some governments mark these tickets or colour them differently, to ensure that drivers or conductors are aware that this passenger may have additional needs. However, if the differences are so distinct, some passengers with disabilities will feel they have to hide their tickets, or even purchase standard tickets, just to maintain their privacy in the company of others or avoid judgment.

 

It becomes clear that two problems exist. The root problem is this; people with invisible disabilities face prejudice and social stigma. The secondary problem is that many areas of public infrastructure are entirely insensitive to that experience.

Related Resources:

Invisible Disabilities: “The challenges of identifying and disclosing disabilities that others can’t see” – Psychology Today.

Invisible Disability in the Workplace – Yonge Street Media.

Living with an Invisible Disability – [Video] One man with an invisible disability dispels myths and discusses his first-hand experiences prejudice and stigma.

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