A person with the international symbol for access on their chest surrounded by icons representing hidden disabilities.

Blog - Disclosing About Undisclosed Disabilities

Real disability can be measured, identified, and observed. That’s how we know that the person we’re talking to, working alongside, or shopping with is disabled. It’s how we know to be extra kind to them, to offer them help, and to use more patience. It’s how we know that they are disabled because we can see it. After all, when our eyes are open and working, our vision accounts for two-thirds of the brains' activity – a full 2 billion of the 3 billion firings per second. 

But what about those of us who look ‘normal’?  

I know the use of the word normal is inflammatory, and intentionally so. There’s no such thing as normal, but it’s the language that’s used, quite commonly, around those of us with disabilities that cannot be measured, identified, and observed. Our disabilities cannot be seen, and; therefore, it raises the question - does that make us less disabled? Or more? Or are we just differently disabled? 

There are a few terms around that describe these types of disabilities – hidden, invisible, undisclosed. 

At the NZDEN we like to use the term undisclosed because it’s up to you. Whether you disclose to your employer or your colleagues or not. You have the power to be disabled or non-disabled in the eyes of your peers and superiors. However, the general language around these types of disabilities is to use the term hidden disability. Currently being popularised by the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Scheme. 

The use of the term hidden disability is apt, I think, because we have to hide a large part of ourselves. The part that has matured from adversity and differs from the personality that we may portray to our non-disclosed audience. There is such a negative connotation around disability, which is slowly changing, that some of us don’t feel comfortable being anything other than presenting as non-disabled. 

The language around disability is extremely sensitive and when measurable, identifiable, observable disabilities are thought of as the norm, a sense of otherness surrounds hidden disabilities. We are disabled, but we’re not seen as disabled. This exclusive connotation perpetuates stereotypes and division, even within the disability community, which leads to hidden disabilities being dismissed because we can pass as non-disabled. 

Thus, the hidden disability paradox emerges. 

People with hidden disabilities can navigate the world in a facsimile of a non-disabled person. Our abilities may not be questioned, we may not get treated with condescension, we may not get ignored, or patronised. But it isolates us and becomes an added burden that we have to carry. We also tend to get labelled unflatteringly based on the behaviours and movements of our bodies that others can see. Lazy, unfocussed, drunk, incompetent. People see the way we rest, or occasionally stagger or slur our words and make assumptions based on that. It’s a tragedy ‘disabled’ is still perceived as a negative that some people with hidden disabilities will prefer to be thought of as lazy, unfocussed, or incompetent. 

Another burden for those of us with hidden disabilities is that if we do disclose, there is sometimes a lengthy explanation to follow. It’s one thing to say, “I have ADHD” or “I have M.S.”, people generally have heard of them. Though their rudimentary understanding is quite often based on incorrect stereotypes. However, if someone says “I have Dysgraphia” or “I have M.E.” there’s usually an explanation needed to make a person understand, both, what these are and how they are disabling. 

We also run the risk of being labelled as frauds. We don’t have a visually obvious disability so therefore we must be faking it, to what end? I don’t know. The assumption that all disability can be seen equates to hidden disabilities not being ‘real’. 

A person with a hidden disability can look like a non-disabled person but we have self-developed strategies that allow us to work around our disability, but this is not without a toll. The fact is, we shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to ‘work around’ our disability to hide it or mask it, but we do because we aren’t safe to disclose it. It becomes difficult to ask for help because a ‘normal’ person wouldn’t need help with this or that. We minimise ourselves in order to fit into the social environments around us because it’s safer to do. 

There’s the argument that people who don’t have measurable, identifiable, and observable disabilities have it easier. It’s thought that we are less disabled because of our ability to blend into society and act in a similar manner as a non-disabled person. I disagree with this, on two fronts. First, no one person is “more disabled” than another within the realm of the social model of disability. Where we are disabled by society and its lack of features, tangible and intangible, to enable us to live freely and unencumbered by our different needs. Currently, we’re all battling against society’s inability to cater for us and our needs. Second, blending in takes a toll on us. It usually means an exacerbation of the symptoms we try so hard to control and can regularly lead to additional mental health challenges. 

One way in which we can start to bring about change, for individuals and the hidden disability community, is to embrace our whole self, be open about our disability, and, in turn, raise awareness around the disabling effects of hidden disabilities. However, to be able to do this, we need safe spaces. 

Common thinking seems to lean towards the idea that most hidden disabilities are neurodivergent, or they don’t 'really’ exist because neurodiversity is not a ‘disability’. This is fundamentally untrue. Of course, neurodivergent people come under the banner of hidden disability, but there are many more types out there. This assumption that hidden disability means one thing, and one thing only, is dangerous, separatist thinking. If we act and react in silos, doing what’s best for our type of disability only, instead of joining together to raise our collective voice and create change for all of us. 

Change is not an easy thing to accomplish, especially not when ideas are so entrenched in stereotypes and sight. There’s a cyclical nature to disclosure, safe spaces must be created to allow disabled people to come forth and talk about their needs, but these safe spaces can’t come about without disabled people being open about their disability and the challenges they face. It’s scary and it’s hard, especially when you have a hidden disability because the fear of judgment, of people viewing you differently. This comes back to the societal stereotypes and how we must understand that not every disability is measurable, identifiable, or observable.

Some of us look ‘normal’ and that’s a problem.