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What is a Silent Disability?

Seeing someone using a wheelchair, a support dog, or a prosthetic usually prompts the assumption that person has some physical challenge or disability. However, not all challenges are visible. Some disabilities can create battles in a person's life just as, if not more, influential as observable disabilities.

A silent disability is one that is invisible to the public. It can be mental, physical, or neurological and often limits or creates challenges for completing regular tasks. Because these disabilities are hidden, they often lead to false impressions, inaccurate judgments, and reduced quality of life due to these perceptions.

Defining disabilities for the modern world

Historically, the term disability has been used to describe a discernable physical or mental challenge that causes a person to have difficulty performing functions such as seeing, hearing, talking, lifting, and working at a job or carrying out household chores. However, this aged idea of a disability greatly discounts the vast number of people fighting to live a healthy, successful life with a silent disability that often takes years to diagnose, if one ever transpires.

Living with a disability does not mean someone is disabled or unable to carry out regular and routine duties. Even with such challenges, many people can successfully manage their symptoms and use equipment and resources to live life successfully.

Examples of Silent Disabilities

Many people are familiar with the more visible examples of disabilities. There are cues to alert us when someone is visually impaired, uses a prosthetic limb, or requires a wheelchair or other mobility resource to get around. But all too often, the battle of someone with a silent disability is raging inside. It is happening in their neurological system affecting their sleep, cognitive ability, memory, and immunity. They could have diabetes, hypothyroidism, or adrenal insufficiency, possibly causing nausea, fatigue, and depression. These symptoms often go ignored by patients and doctors for years or are misdiagnosed. This is often a result of a lack of understanding of the evidence and more a testament to our bodily symptoms' complexity.

Silent Disabilities can affect any system in the body and present numerous symptoms that can be shared by a list of other major and minor causes. After a diagnosis, opportunities are more available for people to live life despite their symptoms. Some of the invisible battles being fought are a result of disorders including:

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Asperger Syndrome

  • Autism

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Brain injuries

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Crohn's disease

  • Diabetes

  • Dysautonomia

  • Endometriosis

  • Epilepsy

  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Lupus

  • Lyme Disease

  • Multiple Sclerosis

  • Narcolepsy

  • Personality disorders

  • Primary immunodeficiency

  • Schizophrenia

  • Ulcerative Colitis

Communication is the key to understanding

Being judged by what is seen or not seen can create frustrations both for the onlooker as well as the person living with the disability. Too often, someone's ability to do or inability to do something is misunderstood. Someone may appear perfectly capable of accomplishing a task when they are, in fact, trying to succeed despite a disability. Judgments can quickly and inaccurately be formed to assume that they are not performing to their ability. But if we open a dialogue, we can better understand what is possible for all the unique characters living among us. We often assume someone with a silent disability is just not trying hard enough, and too often do we lower expectations for people with a more visible disability.

Every person is unique, and that extends especially to those with a disability. Everyone has varying challenges, and what they need to be successful differs as well. Learning to listen instead of judging is why disabilities are defined and why conversation and education are essential.

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