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Shedding light on ‘invisible’ disabilities

WHEN we hear the term “disability”, our minds often jump straight to images of individuals using wheelchairs or those with visible physical impairments.

However, the are also what is termed “invisible” disabilities.

An invisible disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that cannot be seen from the outside, but it can impact someone’s movements, senses or activities, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association.

Some examples of invisible disabilities include autism spectrum disorder, depression, diabetes, and learning and thinking differences such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. Invisible disabilities can also include symptoms such as chronic pain, fatigue and dizziness.

Carmen Nangolo, an advocate for people with autism, says there is a need for mindset change on the public’s understanding of disabilities.

“People need to reframe their interpretation of what a disability is, because I think the way we understand things now is that you’re only disabled if someone can physically see you as disabled,” Nangolo says.

While an autistic person may appear perfectly typical at first glance, they might face overwhelming sensory experiences and communication difficulties, making certain situations challenging to navigate.

Deon Baisako, the secretary general of the Namibian Mental Health Association (Namha), says what makes it seem as if people with mental disabilities do not have a disability is adherence to prescribed medication.

“Adherent patients, meaning those who take their medication, can appear not to have a disability and can handle their own affairs,” he says.

Mental health disabilities, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, can be profoundly debilitating, yet the struggles lie hidden behind smiles. Those grappling with mental health conditions might face overwhelming emotions, panic attacks, or difficulty concentrating, hindering their ability to function optimally in various environments.

Hamiena Riphagen, the chairperson of Epilepsy Namibia, says she would not use the term “invisible” to describe people with epilepsy, but would instead say that some conditions can make people feel uncomfortable in the public eye.

“We should be careful not to use the term invisible, because in the case of epilepsy the seizures are very visible, it is because of the stigma that people isolate,” she says.

Chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, also fall under the category of invisible disabilities. Sufferers endure persistent pain, fatigue, and cognitive impairments, all while appearing perfectly healthy on the surface.