Invisible Disabilities

N. Ann Davis presents a philosophical and sociological exploration of the concept of disability.

Davis, N. Ann. “Invisible Disability.” Ethics 116, no. 1 (2005): 153-213.

In this article, philosopher N. Ann Davis critically reflects on how difficulties faced by people with invisible disabilities can provide us with a better understanding and appreciation for how normative and deeply flawed our prevailing understandings of disability are.

Human Paradigms and Prevailing Ideologies

Paradigms are associated with particular assumptions about the world. Davis explains that fundamental beliefs about what human beings are and what they should be are expressively embodied in a society’s “human paradigm.” Our society’s human paradigm assigns primacy to meeting able-bodied standards. This paradigm treats being able-bodied as both normal and normative. The flip side of this is that, absent a clear marker of disability, the assumption is made that disabled individuals occupy an “unnatural” or “abnormal” state of human existence. Our human paradigm shapes all aspects of life from directing our personal choices to shaping our institutions and policies. It also gives substance to our understanding of “fulcral concepts like wellness and illness, health and disease, and ability and disability” (p. 157). The presumption that there are deep and obvious differences between being “normal” and being disabled is taken as self-evident and factual. But facts do not speak for themselves . One might consider whether a body without a single impairment exists? Defining disability in terms of ability and disability encourages the exaggeration of difference by nature of their binary opposition. This “commonsense” relationship has been accorded importance by a particular society that has embedded the value into its institutions, policies, and social discourse.

Like other forms of prejudice, ableism rests on a number of largely unchallenged assumptions that inform understandings of disability:

The first is that it is normal for humans to be able-bodied. The second is that a person’s disability is a consequence of (or results from) his or her not being able-bodied. The third is that it is principally their abnormality (or their not being able-bodied) that explains why those who are disabled suffer disadvantage in society: both the suffering and the disadvantage of those who are disabled are natural in the sense that they are consequences of the fact that their bodies are defective in certain respects (p. 164).

The result is a “deficient and defective” (p. 213) understanding of disability and of disabled individuals in terms of purely physical or “objective” standards that sees disadvantage as a natural consequence of the fact that they are disabled (p. 157). Widespread subscription to an ableist ideology that claims  disadvantage is due to abnormality inherent in disabled individuals rather than a society’s policies and practices has resulted in a minority status being accorded to disability. Those who are believed to be in a minority are more likely to be disadvantaged in some way and this disadvantage is thought to stem directly from their inherent deviance rather than the social practices that exclude them. The exaggeration of difference between the polarizing concepts of ability and disability and normality and abnormality makes disability seem exceptional and unusual. According to Davis, such a view might explain why there has been a reluctance to endorse policies of accommodation that would make life easier and better for people with disabilities (and those who interact with them): “if they take abnormality to imply rarity, then the resistance to providing more robust accommodation of people with disabilities might stem from the belief that it is only a small portion of people who would be benefited by our so doing or that it is somehow unfair to expect ‘us’ to make sacrifices to benefit ‘them’” (pp. 176-177).

Defensive Strategies

When something is terrifying enough, people seek to protect themselves by putting distance between themselves and the terrifying thing. Davis argues that the push for clear demarcation between people with visible markers (disabled) and people without visible markers (assumed nondisabled) is a defensive strategy employed by our natural tendency to deny human mortality and frailty. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum states, “Human beings are born into a world that they have not made and do not control.” 1 While certain identity characteristics, like racial, ethnic, and gender categories, are considered fixed and unchanging, disability is an identity category any person can enter at any time. The longer we live, the greater are the odds that we will live some portion of our lives as disabled. Those who meet able-bodied standards now cannot expect to maintain them indefinitely. To recognize our own vulnerability and frailty involves acknowledging “that even the best-ordered, most well thought-out, and deeply considered life plans can be derailed by things that lie outside of our control, and the acknowledgment that our lives may not be seen as good by other people even when we succeed in living lives that are good by our own lights” (p. 193). According to Nussbaum, able-bodied individuals “know that their bodies are frail and vulnerable, but when they can stigmatize the physically disabled, they feel a lot better about their own human weakness.” 2 The defensive strategies employed by those of us who possess a socially favorable status function to create disability and further marginalize disabled individuals.

Invisible Disabilities

Davis contests the presupposition that life is easier for people with invisible disabilities by arguing the primacy of visibility has become equated with veracity of disability. “When individuals are not ‘seen’ as disabled,” Davis argues, “it can be more difficult for them to secure the assistance or accommodation they need to function effectively” (p. 154). When disabilities become less obvious, however, people receive them with increasingly skeptical stance. The skepticism that confronts a person with an invisible disability is deep and multidimensional. The specter of lack of motivation or will to change often come into play in cases where “evidence” of a person’s disability lacks an identifiable physical cause and is based exclusively on subjective reports. Davis refers to “the myth of the world-transcendent will” to describe the oft-expressed view that perceived incapacities for some individuals stem not from a true disability but from an inability to “galvanize the will” overcome their situation (p. 186).  As a result, people with invisible disabilities are often subjected to a very specific ableist attitude that casts doubt upon the severity of their condition or its existence altogether. Individuals with invisible disabilities are often forced to “prove” to hostile strangers they are really disabled and not merely seeking undeserved advantages:

“They thus face a double bind: either they forgo the assistance or accommodation they need—and thus suffer the consequences of attempting to do things they may not be able to do safely by themselves—or they endure the discomfort of subjecting themselves to strangers’ interrogations. For those who are disabled, not receiving needed assistance is not merely disappointing or frustrating: it may be an insuperable obstacle or a risk to health or life” (pp. 154-155).

Having to repeatedly disclose one’s disability in an effort to get recognition and accommodation can be, as Davis writes, “an awkward and thoroughly unpleasant undertaking” (p. 205). Davis argues that “people whose disabilities are invisible are regularly put in the position of having to challenge the adequacy of our society’s human paradigm head on, and of having to confront the wall of denial that surrounds and upholds our subscription to this paradigm” (p. 205). When individuals appear to meet able-bodied standards, they are presumed to be “normal” (e.g., nondisabled). Because people with invisible disabilities can often “pass” as able-bodied, their claims to disability are often called into question and sometimes deemed unnecessary. This contributes to this group’s further exclusion and invisibility from the public sphere. The hegemony of ability and the idea of physical perfection versus defect has resulted in, to cite Nussbaum again, “the creation of two worlds: the public world of the ordinary citizen and the hidden world of people with disabilities, who are implicitly held to have no right to inhabit the public world.” 3

A Posturing of Denial

Why do we continue to embrace views of disability that are based on generally unexamined and uncritical assumptions and are so clearly inhumane and morally indefensible?

Davis argues that the reason behind many prevailing views of disability and attitudes toward disabled individuals is society’s encouragement and adoption of “a deforming posture of denial” (pp. 188-189). According to Davis, when able-bodied people deny their own vulnerability and frailty, they experience a diminished humanity for people with disabilities and are less likely to want to engage with them. The result, according to Davis, is a personal and moral impoverishment:

“In continuing to advocate—or even tolerate—our society’s subscription to a human paradigm that marginalizes disabled persons, and a dominant ideology that pathologizes them, we not only harm those whom we now marginalize but also do something that threatens to make our own lives go less well by our own lights. If our society continues to marginalize and devalue those who are disabled, then it is likely that most of us will face marginalization” (p. 191).

Embracing and giving weight to the lived experience of people with disability in ways that encourages their active participation in the public realm is one small move in the right direction. In making the social realm more accessible to disabled individuals, we conceptualize disability as a benefit rather than a defect in  “the richness and diversity of the human good, the multiplicity of the ways in which it can be attained, and the unduly restrictive consequences of our previous modus vivendi” (p. 201).

But an awareness is only half the battle:

“However, even if we concede that those who live in our society now nominally recognize that it is indefensible to turn away from people with disabilities, ignore them, or treat them in ways that are blatantly discriminatory, it can be argued that the defensiveness and denial implicit in our continued commitment to a human paradigm that accords so much importance to meeting able-bodied standards help to perpetuate a deeper, more insidious, and more damaging denial of the humanity of disabled persons. As a society, we have failed to recognize that the very patterns of contemporary American life and the institutions that sustain it often discount or exclude disabled persons and, thus, effectively remove them from the public domain” (p. 197).

In exposing the cultural and institutional context in which understandings of disability and disabled individuals are embedded as well as acknowledging our own anxieties in becoming disabled, Davis encourages us to recognize that people with disabilities are not “abnormal,” “deviant,” or even all that difference from able-bodied individuals. It is this realization she hopes “may help pave the way toward a more compassionate view of persons with disabilities, and of ourselves as embodied human beings” (p. 213).



  1. Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 177. 
  2. Ibid., 219.
  3. Ibid., 308.