What Are Invisible Disabilities?

Invisible disabilities are a type of disability that limits a person’s ability to perform the essential duties of their day but does not produce symptoms that those around them can see. Many conditions have disabling symptoms that are unseen.

9 Types of Invisible Disabilities

  1. Diabetes
  2. Digestive Illnesses
  3. Anxiety/Depression
  4. Autoimmune Conditions
  5. Chronic Pain
  6. Brain Injury
  8. Lyme Disease
  9. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

You may interact with many people who suffer from these invisible disabilities without even knowing it; however, that doesn’t make the conditions any less disabling for those who suffer from them.

What Are Invisible Disabilities?

Invisible disabilities are medical conditions that cause symptoms that are not visible to the naked eye. They can also be called hidden disabilities or non-visible disabilities (NVD). Disabling medical conditions can be physical, mental, or neurological. When someone requires a wheelchair, it is easy to see that they are disabled. But you may not be able to look at someone and know that they are in crippling back pain.

You cannot easily tell if someone has chronic pain, severe diarrhea, or fatigue. But these symptoms are genuine and limiting. Some people live in fear of the next panic attack or an allergic reaction. Living with these hidden disabilities can pose a real challenge for many.

Individuals with hidden disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that makes disability discrimination illegal. Disabled workers qualify for reasonable accommodations to be made by their employer to make the work environment accessible.

A few examples of workplace accommodations are:

  • Flexible schedules or work from home options
  • Access to refrigeration for insulin
  • Privacy place and time allotted for self-testing blood sugar levels
  • Standing desk or ergonomic chairs as needed to alleviate pain/pressure

In addition to coping with chronic symptoms, those with invisible disabilities often find themselves in situations where they are unfairly judged. Some people may think they are “faking it” or lazy. An unkind passerby may yell at someone for parking in a handicapped spot because the person appears to be well. You can see why people with hidden disabilities often feel isolated and misunderstood.

The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate, encourage, and connect people touched by invisible illnesses. The group provides several resources such as podcasts and an online support community, and works to help pass legislation that would allow voluntary disability disclosure on government identification. The IDA is working to improve the quality of life for invisible illness sufferers and their loved ones.

9 Examples of Hidden Disabilities

Hidden disabilities can result from several types of illnesses: physical disease, mental illness, neurological conditions, or an injury. While there’s no complete list of invisible disabilities, there are some common, less visible illnesses.

1. Diabetes

Diabetes is a disease that prevents the body’s ability to process glucose and distribute it from the blood to other cells in the body to be used for fuel. There are two main types of diabetes, and both involve an inability to use insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, to process glucose effectively.

A few of the complications from diabetes that affect everyday activities are:

  • Fatigue
  • Poor healing
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fainting or seizures

Persons with diabetes may need accommodations to follow a prescriptive diet and monitor blood sugar levels when needed throughout the day.

2. Digestive Illnesses

Trying to get through a typical day when you’ve got a digestive illness can be extremely difficult. Many medical conditions cause severe abdominal pain, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and nausea. A few of those conditions are:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Lactose Intolerance

There are many secondary symptoms, too. Excessive vomiting or diarrhea can lead to dehydration or malnourishment. Fatigue, headaches, and joint pain are common also. The fear of a flare-up while away from home can lead to anxiety and depression.

3. Anxiety/Depression

Some disabilities, like anxiety and depression, are caused by mental illnesses rather than physical ones. These conditions can lead to various physical symptoms like headaches, body pain, weakness, and nausea.

A few mental health conditions that can result in disability are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorder

These illnesses are the perfect example of a hidden disability. You can’t look at a person and see that they have anxiety or depression, but the symptoms of mental illness can be rather debilitating.

4. Autoimmune diseases

When the immune system mistakenly attacks the body, autoimmune disease is present. There are many forms of these diseases, and they range in intensity with widespread symptoms throughout the body. People with autoimmune diseases may experience limited mobility, stability, and mental cognition, yet they may not produce visible signs in the early stages.

A few autoimmune diseases are:

  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Grave’s disease

As the disease progresses, the patient often needs a mobility aid such as a cane or wheelchair, but movement can still be severely limited even before it gets to that point. Inflammation and chronic pain make getting around nearly impossible.

5. Chronic Pain

Many conditions can lead to chronic pain. Pain is chronic when it lasts day after day for longer than a typical length of healing time. It can vary in intensity from dull to debilitating. As you can imagine, chronic pain can be a significant limiting factor in successfully performing normal daily activities.

One illness marked by chronic pain is fibromyalgia, a condition believed to intensify the way the body experiences pain. Along with chronic, often whole-body pain, fibromyalgia causes fatigue, sleep loss, headaches, anxiety, and depression. Symptoms can be affected by stress, activity, time of day, and weather.

6. Brain Injury

A brain injury is a type of head trauma that can result from vehicle accidents, sports injuries, or blunt force. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be deadly and should immediately be evaluated by medical professionals. Many people recover from TBI within days or months, but some experience symptoms for years.

Some of the significant long-term effects of TBI are difficulties sleeping, poor concentration, impaired thinking and decision making, dizziness, and blurred vision. There are treatments available such as medication and rehabilitation, and activities may need to be limited or modified.


Both attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affect a person’s ability to concentrate. The conditions can cause impulsiveness, difficulty staying on task, or sitting still. In children, the condition can go undiagnosed and confused with being a very active child. Adults can also have ADD/ADHD, with symptoms of poor time management skills, inability to complete tasks, or restlessness.

Treatment of ADD/ADHD includes medication, behavior therapy, and counseling. The use of sensory devices, commonly known as “fidget spinners” can also help reduce stress and increase focus.

8. Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is passed to humans through a bite from an infected tick. If treated early, a person can recover quickly with mild symptoms. But often, people are unaware of the tick bite. The long-term symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Nerve pain
  • Memory impairment
  • Headaches
  • Brain and spinal cord inflammation
  • Pain, numbness, or tingling in hands and feet
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle and joint pain

Lyme disease is diagnosed with a blood test. It can be treated with antibiotics and often clears in 2-4 months. In some cases, symptoms can persist for six months or more.

9. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) causes extreme fatigue, poor concentration, and muscle pain. Doctors do not know what causes CFS. The disorder is complex and can affect each person differently. Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Painful lymph nodes
  • Headaches
  • Unrestful sleep
  • Always feeling tired
  • Blurred vision
  • Changes in appetite and weight

Since it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of chronic fatigue, it is also challenging to treat the illness. Some patients respond to antidepressants, supplements, dietary changes, and specialized exercise. Symptoms can also be managed through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Can You Receive Social Security Disability for Hidden Disabilities?

If you have a hidden disability that prevents you from working, you might be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits. You can apply on the Social Security Administration (SSA) website or your local benefits office.

The SSA offers two different disability benefits programs. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is available for those who have worked the required number of years and within a recent time frame for those who can’t work due to a chronic illness. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pays disability benefits to eligible low-income adults and children who are disabled, blind, or over age 65.

To apply for Social Security disability, you must fill out the application and include medical paperwork from doctors about your condition. You will also need to have information about your work history with names and addresses of past employers and dates of employment. You must also include a copy of your birth certificate, W2s, pay stubs, and military or citizenship paperwork, if necessary.

After you submit your application, it will take about 3 to 5 months to get a decision. If approved, you will be paid disability back pay, covering the time from the day you applied to the day they approved your claim. If your claim is denied, you can appeal the decision within 60 days of receiving the denial letter.

Hidden Disabilities

Invisible or hidden disabilities refer to a set of illnesses that cause unseen symptoms that limit a person’s ability to perform essential daily tasks. While these symptoms can’t be seen, they are no less severe than a visible disability.

Chronic pain, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, and diabetes are just a few illnesses that cause hidden disabilities. Individuals with these conditions go through their day with headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and more. Though people with invisible disabilities are protected in the workplace under the ADA, they often don’t ask for accommodations or know what accommodations are possible.

People with invisible disabilities often deal with public scrutiny in addition to the symptoms of their illnesses. From being challenged over an accessible parking spot to questioning the validity of medical conditions, those with hidden disabilities can often feel misunderstood and judged.

You can receive SSA disability benefits for your hidden disability. Apply for social security benefits online or in person, attaching any relevant medical documentation. You can enlist the help of a disability lawyer to help you file your disability claim to make the process smoother. An attorney is also helpful should your claim be denied and you need to file an appeal.