The Impact of Invisible Disability in an Emergency

Alice Frame, MA - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator


Invisible disabilities – disabilities you cannot see or disabilities that are not immediately apparent – are incredibly common. Roughly 10% of Americans have a condition or limitation that can be considered an invisible disability. Such conditions can include neurological conditions, mental illness, sleep conditions, chronic and/or autoimmune conditions, or learning and/or cognitive disabilities. It’s estimated that 96% of people with chronic medical conditions have no immediately visible characteristics. Because these kinds of limitations often are not visibly apparent, it’s easy to assume they aren’t there. This results in false assumptions about a person’s abilities. It's also important to recognize that the stress, fear, and physical toll of emergency situations will often aggravate existing conditions and magnify symptoms.

Invisible disabilities can cause limitations that affect how a person responds to an emergency and the kind of care and assistance he or she will need. Some common examples include:

All of these can occur without being visible on the outside; it’s important to keep a few things in mind. Most importantly, never assume that a person does or does not have a disability based on appearance. Not everyone with a disability has visible characteristics of such, and not all individuals with visible disabilities are as limited as one might assume. Do not base assumptions on physical appearance. When helping people in an emergency, ask what their needs are. This is good practice for working with anyone – with or without disabilities. A person is the best judge of his or her needs.

The more prepared emergency responders are for the situations described above, the easier it will be to meet the unique needs of those individuals with invisible disabilities.