Invisible Disabilities Project

It is very hard at times to explain ‘invisible’ conditions to professors, who despite being very smart, don’t necessarily understand what the impact is on a day to day scale.

– Elizabeth, UC – Riverside Invisible Disabilities Project Participant

There’s definitely a divide between invisible disability and disability that can be seen easily. I struggle to get accommodations because people don’t see my disability

Tanya, UC – Riverside Invisible Disabilities Project Participant

Approximately 19% of undergraduate and 12% of graduate and professional university students in the United States report having a disability.  Seventy percent of these students with reported disabilities have learning, attention, psychiatric, or chronic health conditions.  Because these impairments are not readily discernible to others, they are “invisible” or “hidden” disabilities. In general, students with disabilities often suffer unfavorable educational outcomes when compared to students without disabilities. To ensure success, these students require access to adequate accommodations and social supports mechanisms within their institutions.  However, students with invisible disabilities face additional challenges in gaining access to services and may have the legitimacy of their limitations questioned by people who do not have adequate training to recognize these impairments. In this study, we examine the campus experiences of students with invisible disabilities at a large, diverse university. Preliminary results from this study suggest that students with invisible disabilities often must negotiate a complex institutional environment where the legitimacy of their condition may be called into question. Some students report dealing with stereotyping processes and a lack of understanding about their struggles, as well as reluctance about embracing their identity as a person with a disability because their disability is not readily discernable to observers. Others report barriers due to the intersection of other social inequalities, such as race/ethnicity, nativity, gender identity, sexual orientation, first generation student status, and low income status, with that of disability.

We are putting together a preliminary report based on the survey and focus group data that will be posted on this page. We are also working on an awareness campaign based on this study. We hope to have both completed by Winter 2021.

This study is funded by a generous grant from the University of California, Riverside Healthy Campus Initiative. I am grateful to Tanya Nieri for serving as my faculty mentor on this project and to UC – Riverside Sociology Student Cydnea Dean and UC – Riverside Sociology Alum Aisa Ballard-Dosty for their helpful research assistance.