Be Kind…You Never Know Who Could Be Suffering with an Invisible Illness

Suffering with an Invisible Illness

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle,” was written by the Reverend John Watson under the pen name Ian MacLaren. This quote shows up in many places and is worded a bit differently at times, but the meaning remains the same; be kind to others as they may be facing an unseen hardship. Many people go through their lives tirelessly, moving through their daily routines without ever letting on about what may really be happening in their personal lives.

This “hidden” routine is never more evident than for those struggling with chronic or “hidden” illnesses or disabilities. October 14 to 20 is Invisible Disabilities Week. An invisible disability is any physical, mental, or neurological condition that limits a person’s lifestyle and is invisible to the casual bystander. Because a person appears normal and healthy, invisible disabilities can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions, and misjudgments.

According to the American Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is defined as, “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.” Since this is a legal definition and not a medical diagnosis, the term “disability” can refer to so many issues, such as pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive impairment, brain injuries, learning differences, and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairment.

These issues are rarely noticed by the casual bystander. Remember being in line at the grocery store and being frustrated that the person in front of you is moving slowly. Most people have experienced this type of event. If the person in front of you has a cognitive or learning disability or is hearing impaired, they may just need extra time to process what the cashier is saying to them. And they have just as much right to their time processing information each of us does. Yet, because the disability is “invisible,” it’s hard to find compassion or patience for something you can’t “see.”

Unfortunately, society places a lot of expectations on its members who often judge individuals based on what can be seen. Someone in a wheelchair is often observed as being limited. The wheelchair, itself, changes the perception of the onlooker and causes the individual in the wheelchair to be truly limited. Although more awareness and patience are given to someone using a wheelchair, they may be less limited than they appear.

In the meanwhile, an individual with an invisible disability, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or autism, may look and act normal one moment and be utterly debilitated by pain and discomfort the next. Unfortunately, the onlooker fails to recognize the issues those individuals are facing, making them less patient and empathetic.

More than 125 million Americans live with a chronic, invisible illness. They appear happy and healthy, so the outside world views their symptoms as exaggerated or made up. Often the effects of the disability are compounded by the fact that loved ones do not believe an illness actually exists. This response is deeply isolating and humiliating for the sufferer, and they respond with the complaint that their loved ones don’t believe they are sick.

The goal of Invisible Disabilities Week is to educate the community about these conditions and to give a voice to those who suffer them. People with chronic conditions want nothing more than to feel better and experience life as they once did. They spend time researching their conditions, monitoring symptoms, and tracking the food they eat and medications they take. They are often exhausted and have difficulty being spontaneous with friends and family. As a result, they often lose friends and miss out on future opportunities for fun.

How can you help someone you love who is suffering from a hidden illness? By offering understanding and compassion. Offer a caring ear and listen to their needs without judgment. Hire someone to clean their house. Offer to go to the grocery store for them. Sit with them and watch a movie you might have already seen. Sometimes the kindest and most meaningful acts are also the simplest.

For more information on getting involved and learning about invisible disabilities, please visit

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