The flawed concept of visible and non-visible disabilities

Christiane Link
3 min readMay 22

I’ve been a bit under the weather in the past few weeks. I got a new asthma inhaler after my asthma started acting up. Two days after starting the new inhaler, I got a cough, which has kept me exhausted since but seems to be improving now (fingers crossed!).

So the impairment that most impacted my life in the past few weeks was not my spinal cord injury but my asthma. And that’s not so unusual that I say that about my other conditions too, which are often classified as “non-visible”. I think the “concept of visible and non-visible impairments” is totally flawed. I try not to use this classification because it is often inaccurate. It defines disability from a non-disabled perspective. It also ignores that people can have both and that this might change.

Overhead shot of six disabled people of color at a rooftop deck party. An Indigenous Two-Spirit person with a prosthetic leg smiles directly at the camera and gives a thumbs up while everyone else is engaged in conversation.
Photo: Disabled And Here

A hidden agenda

It also creates a binary that comes with an agenda. Many people who say, “It’s not just about wheelchair users”, often don’t make any efforts at all to serve another group of disabled people. They speak of “hidden disabilities” and don’t notice that many people with energy-limiting conditions — very often non-visible impairments — would also appreciate using a lift to avoid the massive staircase without handrails. Or they use the terms “hidden” and “non-visible” to avoid saying who they actually mean. Autistic people? Deaf people? People who undergo cancer treatments?

Many barriers when using public transport are an issue for more than one group of disabled people. To divide us into two random groups is very simplistic, and precisely that, dividing. Overcrowding is the best example. No wheelchair user loves to be in overcrowded areas, on a train, or at a station. Overcrowding is an issue for neurodivergent people, blind people, and many other people. So why divide the affected groups into two halves that don’t reflect reality?

Not so non-visible as it seems

Additionally, many people who are seen as having a non-visible impairment have, in fact, a visible impairment if people would pay more attention and listen to what people are saying to them. My favourite example is the boarding situation at the aircraft door. I witnessed it many times after I got pre-boarded. A person arrives at the aircraft door and…

Christiane Link

Passionate about accessibility in rail, transport and aviation. German Londoner with two passports, wheelchair-using geek.