Women with ADHD: our disability and its invisibility

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Like many members of my generation (*cough*MILLENNIALS*cough*), I’m an ardent fan of all things Harry Potter. Remember how, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry discovered the Mirror of Erised, a magical device that reflects the beholder living out the deepest desires of their hearts? It’s no great secret that my deepest desire is not to have ADHD anymore. But if I stood before the Mirror of Erised, the image displayed in it would be the same as my reflection in any other mirror.

Why? Because ADHD is what is known as an invisible disability

But that doesn’t make it any less real.

As defined by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Invisible disabilities are certain kinds of disabilities that are not immediately apparent to others.” Perhaps surprisingly, an estimated 10 percent of people in the U.S. “have a medical condition which could be considered a type of invisible disability.” 

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as I mentioned above, is one such condition. The effects of its invisibility, however, are highly apparent and highly destructive.

According to the website of CHADD, the National Resource Center on ADHD

Because ADHD is an “invisible disability,” often unrecognized by those who may be unfamiliar with the disorder, socially inappropriate behaviors that are the result of ADHD symptoms are often attributed to other causes. That is, people often perceive these behaviors and the individual who commits them as rude, self-centered, irresponsible, lazy, ill-mannered, and a host of other negative personality attributes. Over time, such negative labels lead to social rejection of the individual with ADHD. Social rejection causes emotional pain … and can create havoc and lower self-esteem throughout the life span. In relationships and marriages, the inappropriate social behavior may anger the partner or spouse without ADHD, who may eventually … give up on the relationship.

ADHD’s invisibility as a disability is particularly pronounced for women. In the ADHD discourse, women are already marginalized. Only in the last decade or so have people begun to think about it as a disorder that affects not just little boys, but adults as well, and only recently has some of the lay population, in addition to scientists, begun being aware that in adulthood, ADHD affects men and women equally. In other words, still plagued by the stereotypical profile of an ADHD person — young, male, and Caucasian — women have to prove their disability exists even to people familiar with ADHD in general.

But ADHD is far from widely understood; perhaps especially when it manifests in symptoms of inattention, rather than hyperactivity, as is most common in women. Remember, many ADHD women are only diagnosed once they reach adulthood; often, women pursue diagnosis after realizing they have the same symptoms as their newly diagnosed children. That can mean decades of pre-diagnosis alienation and of feeling like a failure and disappointment. 

Suffice it to say, we ADHD women certainly have our work cut out for us! Yes, both men and women with ADHD have to struggle for legitimacy in this world that is unable to register, visually, their disability. However, this can be especially true in women.

Think about it: The prescribed gender roles for women in western society are calmness, attentiveness, and organization. Yet, as I’ve said in the past, ADHD people are clinically hyperactive, inattentive, and disorganized. Basically, ADHD women are always already at a disadvantage. They face an even more impossible standard than both neurotypical women and ADHD men.

Basically, ADHD women are always already at a disadvantage. They face an even more impossible standard than both neurotypical women and ADHD men. Click To Tweet

Add to that generalized employer disbelief in your disability, and you have the recipe for erasure.

This is not to say that ADHD is severer or more significant than other disabilities, visible or otherwise. Neither do I mean to suggest that men with disabilities don’t face obstacles too. But it is true that the typical experience of women with ADHD is representative of the female workplace disability experience overall, and that experience is, well, less than favorable.

Consider the following passage from a report of the Working Mother Research Institute:

[T]he burden is heavier for women with disabilities, who also grapple at the same time with traditional gender bias in the workplace. Indeed, female respondents with disabilities who requested accommodations at work that were not approved were twice as likely as men to say it was because their employer did not think the accommodations were necessary. … [I]t seems employers are less responsive when the disability is one they can’t see.

Of course, while ADHD is invisible in that it doesn’t alter a person’s physical appearance, it also doesn’t stay concealed. You notice it when your coworker speaks out of turn, spills coffee, or sits in an odd position. What remains invisible, however, is the reason for this behavior. That is, unless we can get out from under this invisibility cloak.

Yes, it’s time to lift the veil that has obscured people with disabilities, including women with ADHD, for so long. We ADHD women need to find the courage to disclose our disability in the workplace and elsewhere. And in turn, it behooves our neurotypical counterparts to redouble their awareness, and thus, their tolerance.

Otherwise, our particular invisible disability will keep us feeling at once conspicuous and insignificant forever. 

Who wants that?!