Facts on Invisible & Chronic Illness

What is an "invisible illness or disability"?

There are many, many illnesses that are either hard to see or simply "invisible" (hence the nickname). Below is the definition of a hidden or invisible disability given by the Maine Career Center (listed in red).

Definition Hidden disabilities are those disabilities that cannot be directly identified through observation. They can include cognitive, chronic health, and psychological disabilities.

Incidence It is estimated that 54 million people or 20% of the population has some level of disability and 26 million have a severe disability, but only 7 million use a visible device. This points to the fact that many disabilities are hidden. The number of people living with hidden disabilities is increasing with improvements in treatment for chronic health conditions.

Listed below are examples of hidden/invisible illnesses. Note that many invisible illnesses are not listed below.

Epilepsy, chronic migraines, mental illness (depression, bipolar disorder, etc.), chronic lyme disease, STDs/STIs, lupus, transverse myelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rheumetoid arthritis (juvenile rheumetoid arthritis), loss of sight or hearing, heart disease, renal failure, autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, asthma, sleep disorders, developmental coordination disorder (DCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cancer, allergies, autism, cognitive delays and disorders, brain injury, mental handicap, environmental illness, Crohn's disease
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She Doesn't Look Handicap...

Image from www.globeslcc.com

Can you count how many times you've seen someone misuse a handicap decal? Probably not. Or maybe it is a common case of mistaken judgment. Sure, people misuse handicap decals, but many do not. How can you tell the difference...the wheelchair...the cane? The answer is that you can't tell the difference between proper use and misuse.

There are so many hidden or invisible illnesses that society is simply unaware of. Now days, people have to see evidence of a disease, impairment, or disability in order to accept that someone is truly ill. However, the vast majority of disabilities and illnesses are hidden. Chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, and diabetes are just a few hidden impairments. 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with a condition that is invisible (according to John Hopkins University). These people ARE qualified to have a handicap decal by means of a doctor's approval.

So the next time you see a young lady, like myself, park in a handicap space with a legal handicap decal, don't assume I'm using my Mother's handicap decal - it is indeed issued to me. Please don't be one of so many that cuts their eyes at me with a nasty look or leaves me a cruel note - you are better than that. And please don't teach your kids through your actions that it takes someone in a wheelchair to be legitimately disabled. Think before you make judgments.


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Wheelchair Use & Statistics:

The public is simply not aware of so many of the situations that surround wheelchair-use. I have gotten so many shocked, odd, and/or ugly looks when I stand from my wheelchair to grab an item off of a shelf at a store (not to mention the gawking). On a funny note, I usually handle the gawking by turning and simply smiling at the person. A lot of times, they'll turn once again to stare me down and ...find out what's wrong with me...I'll turn and smile/nod again, and they'll get embarrassed about being "caught" in the act.

Around half of all wheelchair-users have the ability to stand and walk some distance. In those cases, the chair is needed for increased mobility and/or improved quality of life (pain levels and increased traveling distances, in my case). *Note that my condition (#6) is equally as common as paraplegia at 59,000 persons affected in the US (3.6% of population) - it's really NOT that uncommon among wheelchair users.

Here are some statistics for the public (from the University of California, San Fransisco) - the 10 leading causes for wheelchair use in the US:

Condition       Persons Affected            % of device users
1 Stroke (cerebrovascular disease) 180,000 11.1 %
2 Arthritis (osteoarthrosis, etc.) 170,000 10.4 %
3 Multiple sclerosis 82,000 5.0 %
4 Absence or loss of lower extremity 60,000 3.7 %
5 Paraplegia 59,000 3.6 %
6 Orthopedic impairment of lower extremity 59,000 3.6 %
7 Heart disease (type unspecified) 54,000 3.3 %
8 Cerebral palsy 51,000 3.1 %
9 Rheumatoid arthritis 49,000 3.0 %
10 Diabetes 39,000 2.4 %
*Health conditions and impairments reported as the main cause of functional or activity limitation. http://dsc.ucsf.edu/publication.php

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