Living with an Invisible Disability—and Receiving Disability Benefits

Published on: January 8, 2020

DisabilityExperts_Living with an Invisible Disability—and Receiving Disability Benefits

Some of us tend to think of disability only in terms of what can be physically seen—a missing limb perhaps, or maybe an assistive device such as a wheelchair, hearing aid, or white cane. Of course, it’s important to remember that not all disabilities have a physical manifestation, and that’s what is meant by the term “invisible disability.” Invisible disabilities are those that are not immediately apparent to others. In fact, invisible disability statistics reveal that 10% of the United States population has a medical condition that could be considered a type of invisible disability. 

If you suffer from an invisible disability, you likely understand how difficult it can make daily life and may receive skepticism or insensitivity from others about your condition. Some people may dismiss various forms of invisible disabilities, such as chronic pain or some kind of sleep disorder, simply because they cannot see visible evidence of it; they may even accuse others of faking or imagining their disabilities. This leads to false perceptions, misunderstandings, and unfair judgment, which is why invisible disability awareness is so important.

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What is an Invisible Disability?

An invisible disability, sometimes referred to as a hidden disability, is an umbrella term that covers a range of neurological, mental, and physical challenges and impairments that are difficult to quantify. While nearly one in two people in the United States has a chronic medical condition of some kind, most do not fall into the invisible disability category because their medical condition does not impair their everyday activities or ability to hold down a job. 

The Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) defines living with an invisible disability as having "symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments." For example, disabilities associated with chronic pain, cognitive disorders, extreme fatigue or an injury can manifest without any externally visible elements and can significantly limit daily functions and activities.

Types of Invisible Disabilities

Types of Invisible Disabilities

You may be wondering what types of impairments can be classified as invisible disabilities. Some of the most common hidden disabilities include:

  • Mental Illnesses: There are many mental impairments that can cause you to have an invisible disability. These mental conditions often interfere with your ability to carry out daily tasks in an effective manner. For example, depression, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder are common mental illnesses that can fall under invisible disabilities. These conditions are not physically viewable, but they can significantly impair one’s ability to perform daily tasks.
  • Chronic Pain: Chronic pain is another condition that often falls under invisible disabilities. There are many conditions that can lead you to suffer from chronic pain. These include bone disease, back problems, and physical injuries. Chronic pain can be difficult for others to notice, especially those who do not understand the specific medical condition. However, chronic pain can still significantly impair one’s ability to be productive on a daily basis.
  • Chronic Fatigue: Chronic fatigue refers to the feeling of exhaustion and tiredness on a consistent and continuous basis. It can be caused by a variety of medical conditions and can affect multiple aspects of your daily life.
  • Chronic Illnesses: Some commonly known chronic illnesses also can fall under invisible disabilities, including diabetes, sleep disorders, and renal failure. People suffering from these conditions can experience difficulty with everyday tasks and the symptoms of their condition are typically invisible to the eye.
  • Chronic Dizziness: This condition is regularly associated with complications of the inner ear and often results in impairments in walking, sleeping, driving and other daily tasks.

Why Invisible Disabilities Matter

Because people who have invisible disabilities often appear to function normally, it can be difficult for others to recognize their impairments. People who suffer from these conditions on a daily basis may fear the unfair invisible disabilities stigma of “simply being lazy,” so they also may choose not to get the assistance they need to help them lead normal lives. They may also not disclose their disabilities to family and friends, and especially their employer for fear of invisible disability discrimination in the workplace. 

"One of the most common things my wife hears is, 'But you look good!' "says Wayne Connell, IDA founder and president. "Even people who knew and loved [my wife] just didn't understand what she was going through."

Wayne’s wife Sherri had been an active singer, dancer, model, and actor who enjoyed riding her horse. However, due to multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, and multiple chemical sensitivities, she now struggles to take a shower, get a meal or go to a doctor's appointment.

"Common misperceptions are that people are lazy, unmotivated, seeking attention or that it is 'all in their heads'," continues Connell. "Even people close to you may not understand what you are going through if you have a debilitating condition, because on the outside, you look the same. People need support and treatment, not judgment."

Applying for Disability Benefits with an Invisible Disability

Disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) are meant to support people with impairments that prevent them from participating in any substantial gainful activity. Invisible disabilities often cause people to become unable to work or carry out other daily functions. They can, therefore, qualify for disability benefits if the condition can be medically determinable.

It is certainly more challenging to qualify for benefits with an invisible disability because the symptoms are often not apparent. You can, however, qualify for benefits under the SSA blue book or through a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment.

Qualifying Under the SSA Blue Book or Through RFC Analysis

If your condition is listed in the SSA’s blue book (a list of disabling conditions put together by the SSA), then you may qualify for benefits. Many cognitive disorders, chronic illnesses, and chronic pain are listed in the benefits resource.

For impairments not listed in the blue book, you can qualify for benefits through Residual Functional Capacity. The RFC is a form that is filled out by your doctor, explaining your ability—or inability—to perform work-related tasks or find and maintain employment. Upon receipt of the RFC, the SSA will carry out an assessment of your ability to conduct regular daily tasks in order to determine the extent of your disabling condition. Here’s a look at just some of the many invisible disabilities a person may suffer from.




Multiple Sclerosis

Anxiety Disorders

Ehlers Danlos syndrome

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity



Myasthenia Gravis




Asperger Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Personality Disorders



Psychiatric Disabilities


Food Allergies

Repetitive Stress Injuries

Bipolar Disorder


Rheumatoid Arthritis

Brain Injuries



Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease

Interstitial Cystitis


Chronic Pain

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Sjogren’s Syndrome

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders


Spinal Disorders

Coeliac Disease

Lyme Disease

Temporomandibular Joint Disorder

Crohn’s Disease

Metabolic Syndrome

Transverse Myelitis



Ulcerative Colitis

Need Help Applying for an Invisible Disability?

If you’re living with an invisible disability and applying for benefits for the first time, filing an appeal, requesting a hearing, or need help with an RFC form, contact the Disability Experts of Florida. We understand that not all disabilities are visible to the naked eye, and that invisible disabilities are very real. We will work with you to help you get the support—and the disability benefits—that you deserve.


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