Designing for Invisible Disabilities: What to Remember

By Brielle Cayer on Jul 6, 2021
Topics: Web Accessibility


I’ve adored the theater since I was in diapers. At age five, my favorite movie was The Sound of Music. I’d exhaust its VHS tape, kneeling in front of the television absolutely mesmerized by Julie Andrews’ commanding presence. By the time I reached high school, I was spending most of my days on or around the stage. 

How does performing connect to accessibility, you ask? Well, despite being legally blind with 20/200 vision, I physically appear to have normal sight. Aside from squinting in bright light, nothing about my eyes seems out of the ordinary. Consequently, I’m often cast into the real-life role of someone without a disability. It’s a character I never auditioned or prepared for.

My Experience with an Invisible Vision Impairment

I’ve been legally blind since birth, so I’ve never known life without achromatopsia (which I talk more about in this blog). However, I’ve also never considered my visual challenges to be a core component of my identity. I didn't even realize that I had an actual "disability" until I was a young teenager when someone used the word to reference me. It was honestly quite a shock. To me, I was no different than any other kid.

Usually, the only way others find out that I’m legally blind is when I explicitly tell them. Otherwise, my blindness is something I can casually hide. Of course, teenage Brielle thought it was a godsend that people couldn’t tell I was different; high school is all about fitting in. Now, I am still trying to figure out a balance between demonstrating my internal character first but also advocating for my needs.

Living with an invisible disability has its own set of unique challenges and social stigmas. For example, when I have an in-person job interview, it’s always a question of if and when to bring my visual challenges up. My eyesight obviously isn’t a part of my personality or work ethic. But what if the job recruiter mistakes my inconsistent eye contact (I often look down to avoid bright lights) for rudeness? Or someone smiles at me in the hall and thinks I’m ignoring them when I don’t acknowledge their far-off gesture.

Mine is the struggle of many other individuals with invisible disabilities. If you explain your condition from the beginning, you risk possible prejudice or assumptions from others. However, hiding a disability can lead people to struggle in silence or face potential misunderstanding.

This predicament impacts more people than you may realize; up to an estimated 20% of individuals live with a hidden disability. Yet, invisible disabilities are often brushed aside when planning for accessibility.

Even when web designers attempt digital accessibility, they often forget to account for the unique experiences of this community. I’ve created a guide to supporting people with invisible disabilities when implementing website accessibility.

What is an Invisible Disability?

According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, an invisible disability is “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” Invisible disabilities often generate intense social stigma, which discourages many from obtaining diagnoses and seeking treatment. I've had people question the extent of my achromatopsia 

Some disabilities can be more (in)/visible in certain situations. For example, my classmates can figure out that I have a hard time seeing if I use any assistive technology to view the whiteboard. On the other hand, a fellow NYC subway passenger wouldn’t have any reason to believe I have less-than-perfect vision. The importance of a situation affects people with many other invisible disabilities such as social anxiety disorder or dyslexia.

Some examples of common invisible disabilities include:

  • Intellectual or learning disabilities
  • Hearing impairments
  • Visual impairments
  • Chronic Pain
  • Neurological disabilities
  • Mental Illness
  • Reproductive conditions
  • Digestive and immune disorders
    ...and many more!

Designing for Users with Invisible Disabilities

Digital accessibility can already be overwhelming to consider; factoring invisible disabilities into your accessibility plan may seem especially daunting. Luckily, creating an all-inclusive accessibility plan that includes this demographic is simpler than you may realize. I've compiled three imperative steps to help kickstart any company's accessibility journey, while also supporting those with unseen disabilities!

1. Redefine Disability

One mistake that companies often make is lumping people with disabilities into one category. The reality is that there is incredible diversity in disability. Just like any community, those with disabilities have a wide range of perceptions, challenges, attitudes, and behaviors. Cater to these as you would any potential consumer.

In my experience, people lack education regarding invisible disabilities. They don't even consider that they may be leaving certain people out of their brand's market. Even when people attempt digital accessibility, it's common for them to focus solely on the screen reader experience. 

Business leaders get excited when they meet someone like me, an actual website user who is blind. Testing with visually impaired and blind users is truly fantastic! The problem is that many companies leave it at that; they neglect to enlist people with other disabilities, even less so, those with invisible disabilities. 

As someone with a specific visual condition, I cannot speak for anyone else’s digital experiences. This is why I believe it is vital for businesses to involve user testers with a variety of disabilities to company websites.

At the end of the day, ignorance concerning this topic puts your brand at a competitive disadvantage. Educating yourself on different types of disabilities can help ensure that you keep everyone in mind when planning and executing accessibility enterprises. In fact, my next tip is a perfect way to start!

2. Consult Experts

Who better to ask about designing for invisible disabilities than this sector of users themselves? It's important to include people with all kinds of disabilities in your business's accessibility planning and decisions. This makes it less likely for your company to miss an accessibility issue that may not be as obvious as others.

Not to mention, consumers appreciate when their voices are heard, involved, and valued. Using people with invisible disabilities shows a real commitment to authentic digital accessibility. 

Not sure where to find users who can offer these unique perspectives? Consult an accessibility audit team, and ask how they involve user testers with invisible disabilities. check out UsableNet's approach to testing digital accessibility with individuals who have disabilities.

3. Adopt A Universal Design Philosophy

Did you know: the seven universal design principles were actually created for industrial planning and architecture but they are now commonly used for web design. 

Universal design benefits everyone not just a single individual or ability. Universal design is inclusive; it is usable, clear, and accessible to everyone. These principles mean that users will not need any additional adaptations. They include:

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexibility in Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical Effort
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

Final Thoughts

Today, I try to mention my visual challenges within the first few conversations with someone. This helps to avoid misunderstandings down the line (plus people think it’s cool that I have 24/7 night vision!) However, not everyone feels as comfortable or has the need to disclose their invisible challenges. This is why it’s so important to think of everyones’ needs when planning for digital inclusivity.

Chances are, you know someone who has an invisible disability, whether you realize it or not. As your business continues to broaden your understanding of accessibility, keep us folks with invisible disabilities in mind! 

Brielle Cayer

Brielle Cayer

Brielle Cayer is a student at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City, pursuing a B.S. in Global Marketing and Consumer Insights, as well as an M.S. in Business Analytics. She is currently serving as UsableNet’s Marketing Intern for Spring 2021. In the future, she hopes to work in marketing research and data analysis.

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