As someone who’s lived and worked with an invisible disability for a decade, I’ve long been passionate about raising awareness for how to support people with invisible disabilities in the workplace.
Living With an Invisible Disability
A lifelong friend recently became a COVID-19 long-hauler. COVID-19 long-haulers, or people with post COVID-19 condition, have symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive problems that develop shortly after contracting COVID-19. These symptoms, which vary greatly from person to person, can last for months or years and can be debilitating.
Six months ago, my friend was a hardworking professional, passionate about her career, loving her life, and using her free time to serve her community. Now, she spends most of the day in bed. Things most of us wouldn’t think twice about—a trip up and down the stairs, doing the dishes, cutting up vegetables for dinner—must be carefully paced. If they’re not, she’ll experience a crash in energy that can last for days.
Because my friend and I live far from each other, I only recently saw her in person for the first time since she became a COVID-19 long-hauler. From what she described in our phone conversations, I expected to be greeted by a frail, sickly person when I arrived at her door. To my surprise, I got an enthusiastic hug and a cheerful greeting from—by outward appearances—a healthy, vibrant woman.
What was happening? Was she faking it? Had she been exaggerating her symptoms?
In the following days, I would make sense of the apparent disconnect. Invisible illnesses like hers often feature a rollercoaster of good and bad days. She can also mask or push through her symptoms for short periods, knowing that she’ll pay for it later with a crash. And some of her symptoms are simply indiscernible from the outside, leaving others unsure of how sick she really is.
This is the life of someone with an invisible disability.
What Is an Invisible Disability?
An invisible disability is an umbrella term for any condition—physical, mental, or neurological—that affects someone’s ability to perform daily life activities but is not apparent from the outside. The Invisible Disabilities Association uses the term to refer to “symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.”
The Hidden Challenges of Invisible Disabilities
Due to the hidden nature of these conditions, people with invisible disabilities grapple with a different set of challenges in the workplace than those with apparent disabilities.
One is the consideration of how and when to disclose their invisible disability. Some workers choose to keep their conditions a secret. This may be out of concerns of employment discrimination, a desire to fit in and appear “normal,” or a fear of not being believed.
Poorly rendered media portrayals that lack nuance and accuracy also create misperceptions about invisible disabilities. For example, a person whose autism has a less obvious presentation may struggle to help others understand the validity of their diagnosis. This is especially difficult when the only understanding others have of autism is based on stereotypes, like a savant with superhuman memory and obsessive interests who has extremely limited communication skills.
Learn more about invisible disabilities in the workplace and what leaders can do to become better allies in DDI’s blog.