What is invisible disability?
When people with disability are featured in the media, especially on television, there is a strong push to make sure that the disability is “visible” and “obvious”.
This is just another form of stereotyping with some obvious examples including:
- All blind people must have a guide dog, white cane or wear dark glasses.
- All deaf people either use sign language or have visible hearing aids.
- All people with physical disabilities use wheelchairs or have crutches/callipers/artificial limbs that are displayed.
- Or they have obviously missing limbs, facial difference or twisted bodies.
- The only cognitive/intellectual disability that can be shown is Down syndrome and they must always be smiling and happy.
- The disability must be permanent. You can’t have “good days” where you don’t need your wheelchair or support.
Image: Blind man walking with guide dog
Research has shown that most disabled people (as much as 90%) have what are defined as “invisible disabilities”.
Examples of these types of disabilities are:
- Hearing loss (especially when people don't use hearing aids, which is most people with hearing loss)
- Vision loss (which includes colour blindness and other conditions such as night vision loss)
- Cognitive and intellectual disabilities
- Autism spectrum
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Temporary disability (which could be episodic or for a period of time)
What is the issue?
The problem with having invisible disability is that it is harder to instantly label somebody as “disabled” and either show that you are being inclusive (especially when you are trying to meet disability quotas) or including that disability as part of a plot.
Invisible disabilities break the stereotypes by suggesting that if you can't see the disability, then it isn't really a disability. That means that it is harder for somebody to provide the expected response of sympathy, looking to support, or being inspired by the disabled person.
How does this impact on media portrayal?
There are several impacts:
- Reinforces the misconception that disability is only about visible disabilities and stereotyped examples of those.
- That disability defines the person and that having an invisible disability is not the same as a physical disability that clearly (to non-disabled people) impacts on their lives.
- That people that have an invisible disability somehow have to “prove” that they have that disability and are therefore worthy of recognition.
- Alternatively, people with an invisible disability get tired of being asked to prove it and therefore downplay or hide their disability, reinforcing the myth that invisible disability isn’t “real”.
Examples of media portrayal
Current affairs programs and news programs love to expose “disability cheats” that are fraudulently claiming the disability support pension or using the autism spectrum as a label for their child to (unfairly) get more resources and assistance at school or to get out of exams. Another classic example is staking out disabled parking spaces and “catching” people who don’t look disabled (but alternatively could be carers moving the car to be closer to the person with a disability).
Image: Scene from news program with caption "disability benefit cheat caught delivering takeaway"
People with disabilities are measured against a usually atypical example. As blind blogger Elsa Henry says she is accused of “not being blind enough” because she does not measure up to the ultimate stereotyped blind model, Helen Keller, who was both totally blind and deaf (only about 18% of people with vision loss have no sight at all).
It is usual to find people with a disability who are only interviewed if they have obvious disabilities.
Another approach is to be “disabled for a day” like the Irish rugby stars that decided to take the streets of Dublin in wheelchairs in the Irish Rugby Wheelchair Challenge (screened on RTE 3) to show how difficult it is to get around. This reinforces a view that disability is only real if it is highlighted by credible famous people and that ordinary people with disabilities are invisible and can’t speak for themselves.
Examples of programs featuring invisible disability
There are a few programs that include characters with an invisible (at first) disability.
A new comedy on Netflix titled Atypical is an autism family comedy (although the character with autism is played by a non-disabled actor).
Grey’s Anatomy has also featured a cardiac surgeon that had Asperger’s syndrome.
Popular, long-standing children’s show Sesame Street has a character Julia that has autism. Julia was created after years of consultation with parents of children with autism and people with autism to ensure that her character was realistic. The puppeteer that plays Julia has an autistic son.
The BBC documentary Employable Me follows neuro-diverse people in their quest to find a job whilst facing stereotyped views about people with cognitive disability from employers.