Hidden disability? To disclose or not to disclose?

Portrait of a serious young woman among other defocused faces on the street

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and throughout the month we’ll explore a variety of disability awareness topics. We’ll also host some guest bloggers to share their perspectives. First, read on as we recognize that not all disabilities are easily visible.

Do you have a hidden disability? Should you reveal it to those you interact with, or should you keep it under wraps? Hidden disabilities have the advantage of secrecy: A blessing and a curse. Deciding whether or not to disclose and to whom can be a challenging question.

What is a hidden disability?

A disability not readily apparent to people you encounter is considered a hidden disability. Those who live with hidden disabilities seem, at least outwardly, to be like everyone else. People generally don’t see and know that you have a disability as they would with someone who uses a cane, wheelchair, or has telling physical attributes.

With a hidden disability, a neighbor, your local grocer and complete strangers don’t usually notice a disability. Neither do coworkers, fellow students and others you interact with daily. However, some may notice or suspect, especially with closer interactions and regular encounters. Those familiar with your disability may also notice the subtle signs where others do not. Still, no one really knows whether you have a hidden disability unless you choose to disclose.

What qualifies as a hidden disability?

Hidden disabilities can be physical, developmental, mental or intellectual and include ADHD, Autism spectrum disorder, brain injury, depression, diabetes, epilepsy, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, lupus, PTSD, visual or auditory disabilities and more.

Common features of hidden disabilities

  • Not apparent to others, they cannot see it
  • Permanent, from a medical standpoint
  • Interferes with everyday activities
  • Causes physical or emotional pain
  • Requires no visible supports or medical aids
  • May be managed through medication or behavior

It’s estimated that 1 in 10 Americans live with a hidden disability, so you’re not alone. Your hidden disability will vary in severity compared to others and may vary for you from day to day.

To disclose or not to disclose hidden disabilities?

For some, it makes sense to keep their disability status private. For others, disclosure is the way to go. Here are the most common reasons why people disclose or not:


Research notes a social stigma attached to having a disability. Some with hidden disabilities are willing to conceal their condition and forego accommodations to avoid being treated differently or negatively by others.


Disclosure can raise legitimacy questions. When someone looks “normal” others may question whether the disability is legitimate or a ploy for personal gain.


Some don’t disclose their hidden disability because they don’t know their condition is considered a disability or they don’t believe it has any influence on their abilities. Others may experience challenges but don’t yet have a diagnosis. Disability diagnosis can take a long time and involve a lot of testing with sometimes conflicting results.


Disclosure allows for accommodation in the workplace, at school or in the community. It can also encourage understanding, especially in cases where the disability affects performance, prompting others to question ability, intelligence, competence or commitment.


Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute found the most common reasons for employment disability discrimination charges involve hidden disabilities. Disclosing your hidden disability allows you to request reasonable accommodation and, if necessary, file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to receive accommodations.

Final thoughts on disclosing your hidden disability

The Center for Talent Innovation, in a 2017 study, found 30 percent of white-collar, college-educated employees have a disability. Yet only 3.2 percent disclosed their disability to their employer. Also, of all employees with a disability, nearly 62 percent have a hidden disability.

At AbleLight, we want you to live life to the fullest! We also recognize that only you can make the right choice for yourself, whether you choose to disclose your disability or not. Do what helps you thrive at work, school, home and within the community while all of us commit to embrace and accept others and treat people with love and respect whether they’ve disclosed a disability or not.

A note about language

Hidden disabilities were previously called invisible disabilities, a term that is quickly falling out of favor because it minimizes the legitimacy of a disability, almost as if it doesn’t exist. Now as we talk about hidden disabilities and whether to disclose, it’s worth noting that hidden implies a person is hiding their disability on purpose.

People with disabilities get to define their language. What should it be, invisible, hidden, non-apparent, less visible, non-visible, or just plain disability? Does it matter if others can see a disability? Does the non-visible nature of a disability make it any less valid? Do we really need to sort and categorize our disabilities? Of course not. You can decide how you want to describe your disability or not describe, talk about or disclose.

Learn more about our Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month activities.