South Africa (University of Pretoria) UP EXPERT OPINION: A non-visible disability is still a disability

Non-visible means something that cannot be seen. Unseen, invisible… hidden from our eyes.  Pretty straightforward.

However, non-visible is sometimes mistakenly confused with non-existent. Just because we cannot see something does not mean that it does not exist.

Take disability, for example.

A large proportion of the 15% of the world’s population that the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies as having a disability, have non-visible disabilities. That would translate to approximately 9 million South Africans with disability considering the country’s population of 60 million people. This is enough people to fill up the FNB stadium – the largest stadium in Africa with a capacity of approximately 95 000 people – a staggering 95 times.

When we think about disability, images like wheelchairs, walkers, grab-railings, and canes typically come to mind. However, there are some disabilities that ramps, accessible bathrooms, Braille and designated parking bays don’t address.

These are the non-visible disabilities. Disabilities like, but not limited to, mental health conditions – for example, anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia or personality disorders. Disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, including high-functioning autism which is sometimes referred to as Asperger syndrome. Disabilities like deafness and hearing loss. Disabilities like some visual impairments or restricted vison. Disabilities like dementia, traumatic brain injury and learning disabilities.

Many of these individuals prefer the term “non-visible” because the word “invisible” can erase the legitimacy of the disability or imply that the disability does not exist.  A “hidden” disability, on the other hand, can imply that the person is deliberately trying to hide their disability while “less visible” does not truly encompass the conditions that are completely non-visible.

A hidden disability defies the stereotypes of what we think disability looks like. This is why this year’s theme for International Day of Persons with Disabilities: ‘Not All Disabilities are Visible,’ is so opportune.

Non-visible disabilities are often overlooked. As “tabs” (temporary able-bodied people) we often judge based on our own life experiences, forgetting that we don’t all share the same experiences. This does not give us a free pass for treating others as “less than.” Being temporary able-bodied is not an excuse for ignoring disability or seeing persons with a disability as “others”, or for making comments like: “He/s he doesn’t look disabled” when referring to non-visible disabilities.

Rachel’s[1]  mother recalls being told that her daughter “is too pretty to have a disability.” It is not okay to perpetuate and spread myths and misperceptions about disability.  It is not helpful to keep quiet about disability because this type of silence feeds stigma and bias. We all need to make sure that we do our part to educate ourselves about things that we don’t understand.

We don’t question a person in a wheelchair who enters a specific que in a shop, or stare when someone walks with a cane. However, society often has harsh reactions to hidden disabilities. Parents of children with autism regularly describe how difficult it is when their children have a meltdown in public because of sensory overload. They endure accusatory stares, unsolicited advice and even reprimands from other parents.

In a school setting, learners who have extra time or other accommodations to write a test, may face derogatory comments or cynicism from their peers. Therefore, many learners with hidden disabilities choose to not use the reasonable accommodations that they are entitled to because they fear being stigmatised. This tendency continues into adulthood when some people who require specific environmental adaptations in the workplace fear asking for these.

Paseka[2], for example, is a young man with autism who needs an office without florescent lighting. However, he has decided to not request this adaptation as he fears that it may attract suspicion and even mockery from his co-workers.

So, how can we think and talk about disability and support persons with both visible and invisible disability?

By treating everyone with respect – just as we would like to be treated. By not judging, showing pity, or being patronising.

Nobody is forced to disclose their disability – it is a personal choice. Some individuals might want to wear a T-shirt or badge to show that they have a non-visible disability, such as “Please be patient, I have autism” or “I am deaf. I lipread and use signs.” Others may not want to disclose, choosing to keep their disability private.

Worldwide, 3 December is International Day of Persons with Disability. This year, let us remember to not judge a disability by its visibility!

Professor Juan Bornman is a professor in the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University of Pretoria. Prof Bornman was also President of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) (2020-2022).