Access for People with Hidden Disabilities

Tips for serving people who identify themselves as disabled, do not use a visible device such as a wheelchair, service animal, or white cane.

Of the 54 million American adults who identify themselves as disabled, only seven million use a visible device, such as a wheelchair, service animal, or white cane. Even taking into account others whose disability may somehow be visible; the number of people who have hidden disabilities is enormous.

In fact, the most common types of disability in the U.S. may be hidden. The three most common causes of disability are arthritis or rheumatism, back or spine problems, and heart disease, all of which may be hidden. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in five Americans over the age of 18 lives with a mental disability that directly impacts his or her ability to work effectively.

Other disabilities which may be hidden include:

  • Diabetes
  • Lupus
  • Epilepsy
  • HIV
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Chronic pain
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  • Cognitive Developmental Disabilities
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Multiple Sclerosis

Perhaps the best way to provide access for patrons with hidden disabilities is to listen to what they have to say about their access requirements. Avoid “policing” people for use of services; if someone says that they need an aisle seat because of a disability, take them at their word. Teach your staff to avoid stigmatizing language and behavior, and train them to understand that some behaviors and appearances are the result of disability. Broaden your view of access: some accommodations intended for patrons with other disabilities may also be helpful to people with hidden disabilities. Large print, for example, can be useful for people with learning or cognitive disabilities, as can audio materials and pictorial information.

Oregon Arts Commission

(503) 986-0082 (phone)
(503) 581-5115 (fax)
775 Summer Street NE, Ste 200
Salem, OR 97301-1280