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The Invisibility of Disabilities: Travel Training Individuals with Hidden Disabilities

By: Jeffrey Dennis, Senior Research Specialist and Travel Instructor, NJTIP @ Rutgers (2024)

Public transportation is essential for many people and provides access to employment, education, healthcare, and social activities.

Public transportation is essential for many people and provides access to employment, education, healthcare, and social activities. However, for an individual with an invisible disability, using public transportation can be a challenging task. Hidden disabilities such as chronic pain, sensory processing disorders, or anxiety disorders often go unnoticed and are not accommodated in public transportation systems. The lack of awareness and accommodation can make public transportation overwhelming and exhausting for such an individual.


People with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities may also have difficulty navigating complex routes or understanding schedule changes, as public transportation relies heavily on visual cues and signage. Additionally, the stigma surrounding invisible disabilities can exacerbate the challenges faced by individuals when using public transportation. People who require accommodations, such as priority seating or additional time to board, may encounter skepticism or hostility from fellow passengers who perceive them as "not disabled enough" due to their lack of visible impairment.


Raising Awareness About Invisible Disabilities

A multifaceted approach is required to raise awareness among transportation providers and the general public and implement policies and practices that accommodate diverse needs. Fostering a culture of empathy and inclusivity is essential. As travel instructors, we can assist individuals with disabilities in advocating for accessible and inclusive public transportation systems, ensuring that individuals with invisible disabilities have equal opportunities to travel safely, independently, and with dignity. It is crucial to recognize that disability comes in many forms, visible and invisible, and everyone deserves access to transportation that meets their unique needs.


As a travel instructor (nearly ten years), I have worked with several individuals with "invisible disabilities." They experienced discrimination throughout their training based on their disability. I would always instruct them to advocate for themselves and address this discrimination head-on rather than passively accepting the status quo. Many of my former students found that most of the public transit operators that they encountered and corrected were immediately apologetic and often changed their understanding of what a disability is and what a "disabled person looks like."


Self Advocation for Invisible Disabilities

As travel instructors, we can recommend that our students wear specific badges, ID cards, etc. ( that can help explain their invisible disability and can assist them when explaining why they need an accommodation and why they are having difficulty using public transportation. Strategies can be added to our training curriculum when training an individual with a disability, but the critical skill is advocating. Individuals with disabilities must be able to speak up for themselves, and if they are not capable, then we, their travel instructors, are responsible for speaking up for them.


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