Read the Label

alphabet soup

It would be safe to say that you probably know someone with a hidden disability. You might even have one yourself. Unfortunately, because they aren’t visible, those that are affected by them are often misunderstood and labelled accordingly.

If a child is deaf they may be called a snob by his peers or inattentive by an authority figure.

Celiac markers may lead a child to be labelled a picky eater or fussy.

Someone with bi-polar disorder might be moody.

ADHD comes off as hyper, distracting and unreasonable.

They may be called, pushy, lazy, disorganized, rude, needy, manipulative, quiet, stupid, mean or weird. They tend to be judged by the resulting behaviors of their disability and those behaviors tend to lead to isolation, mistreatment and failure. Hidden disabilities are so difficult to deal with for the simple fact that they aren’t visible. You must always be explaining and that can come across as an excuse, defensive or pathetic.

Behavior tends to be what’s visible to the world and it is the behavior that is given the most attention by parents, counselors, teachers and doctors. It is the behavior that is questioned and it is the behavior that is in want of being controlled. More often than not, the behavior is only a symptom of the underlying problem. The behavior may cause a problem; but it is NOT the real problem.

It’s relatively easy to spot a visible disability, we can see the results of them. Down’s Syndrome, cerebral palsy, missing or non-functional limbs all fall into that category. Our society has made accommodations for these with special programing, accessible buildings and transit. We are made aware through fundraisers and events. A visible disability is every bit as difficult to deal with as a hidden one and I have no desire to downplay them. However, unless you slap a sign on your child with a hidden disability listing his diagnosis, no one can tell at a glance that they exist.

Hidden disabilities aren’t detectable visually and they encompass a very broad scope of diagnosis. Most of them have something to do with emotions, behaviors and brain function. Others have to do with functions of the body such as hearing, effects of stroke or heart attack or the digestive system like Celiac or Crohn’s disease. They usually show up in the form of acronyms, letters of the alphabet strung to together to say what’s wrong with you; PTSD, ODD, OCD, ADD, ADHD, FASD, ARND, RAD, SAD, ASD and AS.

Hidden disabilities may be present from birth (hearing loss), can come as a result of in utero abuses of drugs and alcohol (FAS, ARND), can be a result of neglect or trauma (RAD, PTSD) or as a result of an event like a car accident, fever or stroke (brain damage, depression). They cross the boundaries of race, gender and biological beginnings.

While I wouldn’t wish it, sometimes it would be nice to simply wrap a label around everyone so you could see exactly what is going on inside them. A simple list saying whether or not they have liver dysfunction, brain injury or anxiety disorders. If we could see that we would handle each other differently. We might be more understanding and gentle with one another. Unfortunately I don’t think there will be a government program implementing that any time soon. We are on our own.

Another unfortunate thing is the lack of information and education about hidden disabilities. They are becoming more and more prevalent in our society and yet it is difficult to find accurate diagnosis, let alone treatment for many conditions. We know relatively little about brain and emotional functioning, though we like to think we do. There are few people who really specialize in things like attachment disorders AND actually know what they’re talking about!

Tomorrow I will begin introducing you to the brave families who are struggling with and trying to find answers to their issues with hidden disabilities. Once again, I will ask that you reserve your judgements and criticisms. It was very difficult for these families to share their stories, handle them gently.


My personal experience with hidden disabilities includes my son, my brother, my mother and several nieces and nephews. What about you, what is your experience?

About Lani

With six kids, a farm, a ministry and dreams poking out in every direction I need plenty of grace to keep all the balls in the air. The sweet thing is that when I drop them, that crazy grace of God is there telling me I'm still okay...and you are, too...welcome to this place of grace.

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