Identity Formation in People with Invisible Disabilities: How Decisions About Disability Disclosure Impact College Students' Sense of Self

Summer 2010

Alyse Ritvo : Sociology

Mentor: Laura Nathan, Sociology

An invisible disability is one that remains unnoticeable to an observer unless the person with the disability or someone else discloses it.  Invisible disabilities can be of a physical, cognitive, intellectual, or psychiatric nature and are estimated to account for 40% of disabilities in the U.S.  Since people with invisible disabilities can choose whether or not to conceal them in a given situation, they face the ongoing challenge of deciding whether and how to present their disabilities.  This liminal status proves challenging for identity formation, a critical issue in young adulthood.  Through qualitative interviews, I will learn how college students’ decisions about disability disclosure affect their self-concepts and relationships.  I hope that my research findings will inform public health workers, university administrators, and the general public about how to better accommodate students with invisible disabilities. 

I am excited to have the opportunity to conduct my own research outside of the pressures of the academic school year. The SURF grant allows me to explore a topic that is at the intersection of psychology and sociology – two disciplines I am passionate about – and to develop academic skills and foster relationships with people at Cal along the way. I am grateful to be pursuing this research at an institution that recognizes the challenges facing students with visible and invisible disabilities and has been at the vanguard of recognizing these students’ rights. I have been touched by the willingness of students – friends, acquaintances, and strangers – to disclose their disabilities to me when I have described my research project, and look forward to hearing more students’ stories.