Hiding in plain sight: 4 things you can do to support people with invisible disabilities

I don’t have a disability. I have three. And not one of them can be identified simply by looking at me. All three are invisible and should be afforded the same compassion and respect as visible disabilities. Sadly, I’ve found this isn’t always the case and we need to talk about that.

You might look at me and wonder why I’m looking at you but not really looking at you. You might think I’m rude or dismissive of you when I don’t say hello when I walk past you. You might see me crying in a conference room or at the bus stop and think I’m immature or lacking in resilience. You might think I’m lazy or selfish if you see someone carrying my bags or a tray for me and if I don’t put my hand up to write on the whiteboard or take notes, you might think I’m not a team player.

None of this is true.

I am autistic, I have Major Episodic Depression and Bilateral Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS).

I was born autistic and unless I get a new brain, it’s not going anywhere which suits me just fine because it’s who I am and I love it. I started showing signs of depression more than 18 years ago at the age of 12 and while this is a temporary (I hope) disability, it impacts me every day. My CTS is the result of years of avoidable repeated stress injuries as an industrial designer constantly working with my hands and on computers leaving me with a condition that I will have to manage for the rest of my life.

It’s not all bad though. I have a differently wired brain that allows me to see the world in ways that other people never will. My depression is highly treatable and I will be ok- eventually. Lastly, my CTS is managed through some super attractive nighttime wrist brace wear and ergonomic IT equipment that frankly everyone should be using otherwise we’re all going to get CTS!

The thing is, you just don’t know if that person standing in front of you has an invisible disability. You don’t know if you are unfairly judging that person standing before you because you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re only human after all and that’s a good thing, because while we’re ignorant and prejudicial sometimes, we’re also empathetic! We care.

So, put your human-ness to good use by doing these 4 things to help support people with invisible disabilities:

1. Accept that invisible disabilities are just as real as visible ones

You wouldn’t tell a wheelchair user to take the stairs so don’t force an autistic person to make eye contact or insist that a non verbal autistic person learns to speak! Disabilities are disabilities. Whether the disability is permanent or temporary, lifelong or acquired, visible or invisible, all people with disabilities deserve to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion. There is no hierarchy where one disability is more ‘serious’ or more ‘worthy’ of your support than another. The same principles of behaviour apply to them ALL.

2. Ask, don’t tell

Don’t tell me what I need to do differently. Instead, ask me why I do things the way I do, understand my reasons and then let’s have an open two-way discussion. For me, my depression symptoms include anxiety. Intense, panic attack inducing anxiety. I used to be terrified of using my corporate credit card and then completing the expense claim process afterwards. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to get the money back in time to pay the bill and I was afraid it was going to hurt my credit rating. Where possible, I would avoid using it which meant other people had to put it on theirs which wasn’t very nice for them. Just the idea of using that thing quickened my heart rate and caused me to break out in a sweat. One day a colleague asked me about it. He told me that he noticed I was avoiding using it and that I seemed very uncomfortable whenever the subject of expenses came up. He could have told me to cut the crap, stop burdening your colleagues and just use the damn thing but he didn’t. Instead, he asked: “Why? Why is this happening?”. I told him how anxious I was and why, he busted a few myths and together we came up with a plan to empower me to do something that is actually part of my job. In this situation, focusing on the ‘why’ in the first instance, paved the way for a productive discussion that resulted in a plan for positive change. And yes, I have made an expense claim since that discussion and I handled it panic attack free.

3. Learn about our differences

Really this one should apply to everyone and everything, but sometimes invisible disabilities fall through the cracks. Assume nothing and get to know us as individuals and take the time to understand what our differences mean for both you and us. Loud, sudden sounds rattle me to my core and a knock at the door can ruin my entire day. I have a bad habit of accidentally locking my husband out of the house on the weekend. It’s a three part locking system and one part can only be unlocked from the inside. I’ll go outside, do the gardening or pick lemons off the tree and will turn that third lock on my way back in without even thinking. My husband knows that a knock at the door can cause an autistic meltdown in me. He learned that one the hard way one Saturday afternoon and he hasn’t done it since. Now he sends me a quick text message asking me to let him in and everyone gets on with enjoying their day. It’s a simple and effective solution that shows he understands me and my differences and you don’t need to be married to the person to do that.

4. Meet us halfway

The same way we expect you to accept us as we are, we accept you as you are. We all need to come together and meet each other in the middle. It’s all about working together and each doing our part to enable everyone to feel comfortable and safe being their authentic selves. In the case of my door story, my husband meets me halfway by not knocking on the door and I meet him halfway by trying to stop locking him out. There is a post it note on the inside of the door where I’ve left myself a reminder not to lock it when he’s not home! That’s just a domestic example- this kind of thinking applies to any situation where two or more parties have to get along eg. in the workplace, at social events, with extended family… the possibilities are endless!

At the end of the day, all you have to do is: ditch the assumptions, ask, listen and be open to a different way of thinking.

What can you do to support people with invisible disabilities today?