We are all familiar with disabilities that are clearly visible, such as ones which reduce mobility, cause movement disorders, or limit the senses, like hearing or sight. But not all disabilities are evident at first glance. According to the Australian Network on Disability (AND), over 4.4 million people are living with a disability. That amounts to one in five Australians.

When providing disability care, 365 Care has learned about many forms of disability. Someone may have hidden disabilities such as a neurological condition, mental illness or anxiety that limits a person’s ability to participate fully in society, or have disabilities that are physical and in plain view. They may be born with a disability, or could develop one following an accident, or simply through the natural aging process. No matter what the source or type of disability, someone with disabilities doesn’t have “no abilities.” They have different individual abilities and capabilities as do we all.

How is a disability defined?

A disability is any condition that causes someone to lack abilities that the majority of others have. Disability also refers to reduced or limited functioning in physical, cognitive, or mental abilities.

The Australian Network on Disability (AND) says there is a “strong relationship” between age and disability. By age 90, 84.6% of Australians have some form of disability, most often a loss of mobility due to arthritis, or a loss of vision or hearing due to ageing. However, many younger people are also impacted by disabilities as well, some of which cannot be ‘seen’.

Disability may be permanent and lifelong others might be temporary, such as the need for crutches or a cast on the arm following a broken bone.

What do they mean by visible and invisible disabilities?

When we say “disability,” people often think of wheelchairs, but only 4.4% of Australians use a wheelchair. Loss of mobility is a visible disability.

In contrast, until we speak with someone with hearing loss, it isn’t immediately apparent that they can’t hear. Hearing loss is an “invisible” disability. About one in six Australians have some degree of hearing loss, and about 30,000 have total hearing loss.

There are also people who suffer with neurological conditions, are on the autism spectrum or have mild Cerebral Palsy or Hemiplegia. These conditions are not visibly noticeable at first glance, but can have a significant impact on someone’s quality of life and their ability to integrate into the community fully.

Challenges for those with disabilities

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) prepares in-depth reports on health issues, including disabilities. They report that it’s much more common for people with disabilities to experience poor health, discrimination, and even potentially, violence, than those without disabilities.

Here are some of the areas in which the disabled can experience serious challenges:

Employment: Among working-age Australians, fewer than half (48%) of those people with a disability are employed, compared to 80% of those lacking a disability.

Psychological distress: 32% of Australians with a disability experience psychological distress, compared to only 8% of those without a disability.

Good health: Nearly 2/3 (65%) of Australians without a disability experience good health, but only 24% of those with a disability do.

Violence: People with disabilities are more vulnerable to violence. 47% of disabled Australian adults have experienced violence, compared to 36% of those with no disability.

People with disabilities do experience discrimination. AIHW reports that one in 10 Australians with disabilities experienced discrimination in 2020.

Although the majority of students with disabilities attend mainstream schools, one in three of them don’t complete Year 12. Australians who were born with a disability, or who developed one while young, are more than twice as likely than those without a disability to leave school before age 1 6.

Living with hidden or invisible disabilities

Few of us would fail to assist or respond appropriately to someone with a wheelchair, walker, or a vision-impaired person with a white cane, but when the disability is hidden from view, matters become quite different.

Individuals with cognitive differences, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often do not receive acknowledgment or accommodations.

Debbie Brooks, the National Diversity Employer Manager for AtWork Australia, says “An invisible disability is something that is not immediately apparent and can span across physical, mental or neurological conditions.”

Because the disability isn’t immediately apparent, a wealth of misunderstandings can occur from the workplace to the community. As one example, someone with Hemiplegia, a cognitive condition or a visual or hearing disability could appear “normal” at a casual glance, yet they will not be able to participate the same as others who have no impairments.

People are people; we all experience challenges

The Invisible Disabilities Association says that challenges from a disability could be a “well-managed bump in life or a mountain that creates severe changes and loss.” They add that “just because a person has a disability, does not mean they are disabled.” In other words, people with disabilities can be and are fully active in their lives.

The pioneering physician William Osler (sometimes called the “Founder of Modern Medicine”) said “Ask not what disease the person has; ask what person the disease has.”

What did he mean by the simple phrase? It’s nothing but common sense: when you’re treating a patient look at the whole person, not just an injury, disease, or disability.

When encountering someone with a disability, it’s good to remember that just because they have an impairment doesn’t mean they can’t do anything at all, and above all, they are people first, with differing levels abilities.

For those living with disabilities, being considered first as people is paramount to overcoming discrimination and challenges. Abilities, after all, are just a range, in all aspects of life. We don’t expect every person who plays golf to hit the ball as far as Greg Norman or play tennis like Roger Federer, but both athletes would readily admit they wouldn’t be as good an actor as Hugh Jackman or any other well-known Australian performer.

How can the general public help?

Educating yourself about disabilities is the first and foremost priority.

There may be disabilities that you’ve heard of or encountered which you’re not familiar with, such as Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and many others. Aussie Educator offers a good listing of associations and resources for many different disabilities. Access these resources and learn all you can. The insights you receive are certain to help.

Ideas for understanding people with disabilities

In the past, people tended to view others with disabilities as being incapable or childlike, in need of constant care or coddling. Overcoming this attitude is helpful for those with disabilities as well as those who live, work with, and encounter them in daily life. Here are some thoughts about interactions that will be positive for all concerned:

  • Allow the person with a disability to say whether or not they need assistance
  • Learn more about their specific disability
  • Never assume someone is disabled or incapable

Don’t assume that someone with a disability is “always nice,” either. You may encounter someone with a disability who is unnecessarily rude or unpleasant, which may be a result of their disability, or not. Treat them as you would any other person who might be acting inappropriately and remind them of appropriate behaviour. Don’t “coddle” those with disabilities and make allowances for behaviour that would be inappropriate under any circumstances.

With one in five Australians with a disability, we will all know at least one or more people who fall into this category. Talking about disabilities is uncomfortable for many people. We don’t want to think that we may need help someday ourselves, and sometimes we are afraid of disabilities we haven’t encountered before or don’t have full information about. 365 Care is here to support people with disabilities and their families.


http://www.aussieeducator.org.au/resources/ archived/ specialeducationresources.html

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