University students with hidden disabilities often confront challenges in the perceptions of their disabilities and in obtaining their education (Mullins & Preyde 2013; Olney & Brockelman, 2003). According to Olney & Brockelman, (2003) some students express feelings of disconnect with having a disability and having to confront others only enhances this feeling. Students with invisible disabilities confront their difficulties in certain instances. This may include classroom activities, group work inside and outside of the classroom, and

writingassigned papers, and facing accessibility challenges.  Students with invisible disabilities often experience internal fear and feelings of incompetency when faced with classroom challenges. These experiences and feelings often result in confusion and feelings of learning inferiority (Olney & Brockelman, 2003).

 Invisible Disability

Invisible or hidden disabilities, according to Lingsome (2008) and Valeras (2010), as impairments combining able-bodied appearances with disability, resulting in few visual identifiers.Valeras (2008) defined “a “hidden disability,” as one unapparent to outside observers, defiying the outward social construction of disability (p. 1). There is a diverse range of hidden disabilities in the literature (see Table A).

Table A:
Invisible Disabilities

Cognitive cognitive, learning and cognitive differences, ADHD, learning disabilities, dyslexia
Long term congenital conditions, chronic and terminal illness, illness
Injury based Disability resulting from injury
Mental mental illness
Physical hearing loss, speech, sensory impairment, juvenile diabetes, asthma, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, celiac disease, hearing loss

Note: List developed from: Lingsom (2008); Mullins & Preyde (2013); Valeras (2010); Samules (2003); Valle, Solis, Volpitta, & Connor (2004).

Invisible Disability Passing

Along with the experiences of invisible disability, there is the construct of disability passing. Disability passing refers to the complex manner individuals attempt public signs of normality in order to avoid painful experiences of stigma (Brune & Wilson, 2013; Samuels, 2003). That is, passing promotes a feeling or attitude of normalcy. Individuals with disabilities who pass, confront the fluid nature of their disability (Barnartt, 2013). Brune and Wilson (2013) explained how passing relates and connects directly with an individual’s internal feeling of stigma, as stigma changes over time and through personal lived experiences. Passing diminishes an individual’s sense of worth, builds fear, feelings of inner guilt, separation, and internal dissonance (Samuels, 2003). Concealing requires large amounts of energy as internal and external relations suffer (Lingsome, 2008). This is followed with the appearance of being the individual they are not. Individuals face additional challenges with invisible disabilities in regard to suspicions and external experiences of perceived fraud. For example, the use of disability parking spaces when confronted by an able-bodied individual. Individuals are faced with uncertainty in how to approach an individual whose disability is invisible, which comes to construct the privilege of passing.

The Privilege of Passing

There are certain advantages associated with being able to pass with a hidden disability.

Lingsome (2003) and Samuels (2003) noted the ability to pass allows for the assumption of normality, and a reducing of the stigma linked with disability. Passing allows a sense of blending in and conforming with the dominant culture (Samuels, 2003).  Passing offers a disguising of disability, as a result, the student’s teacher may not have any idea of the struggles the student is having, out of the fear of disclosure. Individuals with invisible disabilities have a choice to make in revealing their disability.


            Individuals with an invisible disability have a choice to “come out”and disclose their disability to others. This is an individual choice, andoften it is based upon their own inner journey of acceptance and support. What then is “coming out?”

Coming Out/Coming Out To

Samuels explained (2003) the “coming out”process is broken into two features, “coming out and coming out to”(p. 237). The phrase coming out refers to the acceptance of one’s identity. Swain and Cameron (2007) definecoming out as the process of redefining the individual as to what is considered normal and a reclaiming of self-results and emerges. The coming out journey is a series of events not a singular statement, as individuals make choices on a daily basis who to reveal their identity to: with friends, coworkers and in professional contexts.

The phrase coming out to refers to whom one is telling and sharing. Thisrevealing is a single event (Samuels, 2003). This is the process of coming out either to one single individual or to a group, and usually refers to the time that one first realized and comes to terms with one’s own identity of disability (Samuels, 2003). Students with invisible disabilities who disclose correspondingly make decisions to reveal their specific hidden disabilities to their friends, parents, peers, and school administrators; this façade is internally confronted and tested daily in the classroom and in interactions with fellow instructors and colleagues. Individuals who have an invisible disability and make personal choices on how to “come out” and who to “come out to,”and often this is an inner journey.




Barnartt, S. N. (2010). Disability as a fluid state. Bingley: UK, Howard House.


Brune, J. S & Wilson, D. J. (2013). Disability and passing. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Lingsom, S. (2008). Invisible impairment: Dilemmas of concealment and disclosure. Journal of Disability Research, 10(1), 2-16. Retrieved from


Mullins, L., Preyde, M,. (2013). The lived experience of students with an invisible disability at a Canadian university. Disability & Society, 28(2), 147-160. doi:10.1080/9687599.2012.752127


Olney, M., & Brockelman, K. (2003). Out of the disability closet: Strategic use of perception management by select university students with disabilities. Disability & Society, 18(1), 35-50. doi:10.1080/0968759032000044193


Samuels, E. J. (2003). My body, my closet: Invisible disability and the limits of coming-out discourse. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1, 233-255. Retrieved from


Valeras, A. B. (2010). ‘We don’t have a box’: Understanding hidden disability identity utilizing narrative research methodology. Disability Studies Quarterly, 30(3-4), Retrieved


Valle, J., Solis, S., Volpitta, D., & Connor, D. (2004). The disability closet: Teachers with            learning disabilities evaluate the risks and benefits of “coming out”. Equity and Excellence in Education, 37(1), 4-17. Retrieved


A Blog by Lisa Boskovich, 4th year Doctoral Student and soon to be Doctoral Candidate, GRA for The Thompson Policy Institute on Disability and Autism.