Invisible disabilities: What are they, and how can we support them?

A disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.

However, something that is often overlooked is just how different one disability can look when compared to another. Some disabilities cannot be seen from the outside.

Every disability is different. Within Australia, one in six people, which is approximately 18% of the population, live with disability.

This adds up to about 4.4 million individuals. Disability can happen to anyone of any age, gender or circumstances.

For example, the statistics for disability per age group is as follows:

  • 7.6% of children aged 0–14 have disability
  • 9.3% of people aged 15–24 have disability
  • 13% of people aged 15–64 have disability
  • 50% of people aged 65 and over have disability

These statistics show just how many people live with disability - many of which the average person may have no idea about.

Many people with disability involve themselves with their local communities. Nine out of ten school-age children with disability attend school.

53% of individuals aged 15-64 with disability participate in the labour force.

96% of individuals living with disability live in private dwellings, which means that many people with disability involve themselves in the same day-to-day activities as those who don't have a disability.

This is particularly important to note when discussing invisible disabilities and how those with hidden disabilities may be treated in a public setting.

Disability affects many people, whether it be a life-altering disability or a small effect on somebody's day-to-day life.

Some people living with disability require ongoing support, it may be practicable for others to self-manage to a degree, with the right tools and systems.

These tools and systems may not be immediately visible.

It is essential to recognise that disability doesn't look the same for everybody. There are many non-visible disabilities that others may not pick up on.

Considering one in ten individuals living with disability has experienced disability discrimination in the last year, it's essential to educate ourselves on hidden disabilities.

This ABC article, 'Invisible' disabilities: Car park confrontation prompts call for greater recognition, is an example of the unfair disability discrimination that can occur to those with non-visible disabilities.

The article speaks with Sarah Larcombe, a young woman living with Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory condition.

Sarah explains that despite being issued a disability permit because she doesn't 'look' disabled from the outside when using an accessible parking space, she was confronted and questioned about whether she had a disability.

Blue Badge Insurance Australia conducted a survey on invisible disabilities.

It found that 68% of participants in the survey who self-identified as having an invisible disability held a current disability parking permit.

The Blue badge survey also concluded that 77% of survey participants had faced harassment while parking in an accessible parking space.

Unfortunately, this harassment has led to 59% of participants feeling the need to change how and when they use their permits.

With over 600 participants in the survey, this is a good indication of how Sarah's unfortunate run-in with somebody in the car park may not be an isolated case.

Which is why it's essential to grow awareness around non-visible disabilities and to offer support for all of those with disability.

What are invisible disabilities?

An invisible disability can be described as a physical, mental or neurological impairment that is not visible from the outside.

Despite the 'invisibility' of the impairment, the person with a disability is limited or challenged in terms of movements, senses or activities.

Disabilities are often thought of as visual or physical impairments that can be noticed from the outside.

However, this is not always the case with hidden disabilities.

A disability is typically defined as an impairment, whether physical or mental, that has a long-term adverse effect on an individual's ability to go about their day-to-day life.

What are some examples of invisible disabilities?

There are many invisible disabilities, and we won't cover them all in this article.

However, we will dive into some common chronic illnesses and invisible disabilities to shine a light on the prevalence of these chronic medical conditions.

Mental health conditions

Mental illness and psychiatric disabilities can impact daily living significantly, from day-to-day tasks to major life activities like schooling or workplace responsibilities. Mental health disorders may include; major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others.

Learning disabilities

A learning disability is a lifelong disability that affects an individual's learning ability. This may be in one particular area or across the board. A learning disability is not visible from the outside. However, it can significantly impact an individual's day-to-day life.

Traumatic brain injury

Suffering from a traumatic brain injury can significantly impair participation in everyday activities.

Those with a traumatic brain injury have a form of brain injury that occurs when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain.

Moderate or severe traumatic brain injury can lead to a permanent physical or mental disability.


Epilepsy is a neurological disorder caused by abnormal brain activity. This activity can cause seizures, unusual behaviour, sensations and loss of awareness. However, those with epilepsy do not constantly show the signs of epilepsy.


Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS, a chronic immune system disease. HIV damages the immune system and impairs the body's ability to fight infection and disease.

The UNCRPD and anti-discrimination laws recognise HIV as a disability.


Diabetes is a chronic (long-term) health condition that affects how your body processes food.

In diabetes, insulin cannot be produced by the pancreas. Diabetes can not be viewed from the outside.

Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome can be a severe and disabling syndrome.

The World Health Organization has classified chronic fatigue as a neurological disorder. However, it can also affect parts of the body.

Cystic fibrosis

Those with cystic fibrosis have thick, sticky mucus clogging their lungs and digestive system.

From an early age, it can cause breathing and digestion problems.

In addition, the lungs can become permanently damaged over time, causing them to stop working properly.

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADD, and ADHD are invisible disorders. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a mental health condition affecting people's everyday behaviour, thinking, and behaviour.

Federal law also considers it a disability if it negatively impacts your work or school performance.

What makes these disabilities invisible?

Despite invisible disabilities being permanent disabilities that are coped with on a daily basis, they remain unknown to the outside eye.

The features that make the above disability and chronic illnesses examples invisible are as follows:

  • From the outside, you cannot 'see' the disability
  • There are no visible supports (wheelchairs, canes etc.)
  • The disabilities may be managed by medication
  • The pain (physical or emotional) cannot be seen

Are invisible disabilities rare?

Invisible disabilities are not rare. 90% of the 4.4 million people living with disability in Australia are living with an invisible disability.

While sometimes those with an invisible disability may be forthcoming with their condition, others may choose to keep their invisible disability to themselves for their own reasons.

What are some supports available?

Those with hidden disabilities are eligible for disability support. Some examples of the available supports are listed below.

Australian Disability Parking Scheme

The Australian Disability Parking Scheme is available to those with hidden disabilities. Despite the wheelchair sign being used for these parking spots, accessible parking spaces are not only available for those with a disability requiring a wheelchair.

The Disability Parking Scheme is available to help those with a disability to park closer to their destination.

Those with invisible disabilities may struggle to carry heavy loads for long distances, need closer bathroom access, or have mobility issues.

Community mental health

Community mental health support is available to those with mental illnesses who need help managing their day-to-day lives and improving their well-being.

Disability Royal Commission support services

The Disability Royal Commission support services are a free service funded by the Australian Government which involves independent counselling and advocacy support for those with a disability that have experienced violence, abuse, exploitation or neglect.

Disability Employment Services

Disability Employment Services are available to help those with a disability to participate in the workplace by helping to find and keep employment.

Family Mental Health Support Services (FMHSS)

The FMHSS aim to provide improved mental health outcomes for children and young people suffering from mental health and their families.

National Disability Advocacy Program (NDAP)

The NDAP exists to provide funding to organisations to provide advocacy support to individuals with disability.

This funding should protect and ensure the individual's full and equal enjoyment of all human rights.

National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

The NDIS supports individuals with permanent and significant disability that is affecting their ability to involve themselves in day-to-day activities.

To learn about more programs and services available within Australia for those with invisible disabilities, please check out the 'For people with disability' page on the Australian Government of Social Services website.

What are communities you can join?

Outside of government programs, support groups are available for individuals with a hidden disability to connect with others and build a community supporting them.

Support groups and organisations vary from state to state, so we suggest researching your local support groups.

If you have any questions about finding support near you, please don't hesitate to contact our friendly team; we would be more than happy to help point you in the right direction!

We encourage you to support Invisible Disabilities Week

During October, a week is dedicated to awareness and education about invisible disabilities.

The Invisible Disability Association began hosting Invisible Disabilities Week in 2014. It has since become an important event for supporting those with hidden disabilities.

Workplace support for those with invisible disabilities

Invisible disabilities can impact day-to-day activities, including everyday workplace responsibilities.

So if you or somebody you know is having difficulty at work, you can reach out for help. Here at APM, we offer Disability Employment Services to those with invisible disabilities.

We have helped thousands of people to find and keep employment. We have supported individuals with scoliosis, epilepsy, learning disabilities, anxiety, autism, verbal communication troubles, cerebral palsy and more.

You can read the inspiring stories of our job seekers and their new roles within the testimonial section of our website.

Reach out to APM

Please feel free to reach out for assistance if you are having difficulties finding a job or keeping up with your current job.

You can apply for Disability Employment Services through APM, a government-funded program that assists people with disabilities in securing and keeping jobs.

The Australian Government funds the program, so participation is free. Employment providers such as APM can assist you in finding job opportunities, planning your career, and preparing for a job search.

So whether you are considering a career change or just want some advice on your current position, here at APM, we can help you.

We support thousands of people to achieve their work and personal goals.

Call APM on 1800 276 276 to find out if you qualify for Disability Employment Services.