Understanding Hidden Mobility Disabilities

At least 4 million Canadians are affected by hidden mobility disabilities (HMD).

Can you walk, but not far? Do you suddenly experience severe joint pain or shortness of breath when you walk more than 15 metres (50 feet)? If you have to stand in line, do you become almost immobilized by pain after a few minutes?

People with HMD are independently mobile. But they can walk only a short distance — on average, 11 to 15 metres (35 to 50 feet) — and stand for only a brief time (one to two minutes), without significant health consequences.

Hidden mobility disabilities are truly invisible. They’re “hidden” because people with HMD can walk, so they look “just fine.” Millions of people with osteoarthritis or other other health conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder or heart disease, have this mobility limitation.

With HMD, there’s the added challenge of the manageable walking distance varying from day to day, depending on the person’s general health and level of exhaustion. You may start walking across an open space and suddenly become immobilized by pain between one step and the next, with nowhere to sit down. Not knowing the distance to be walked ahead of time can prevent people from enjoying their everyday lives.

Since people with HMD can walk, others often assume
they can always walk any distance necessary.

It can be difficult to explain that the “short distance right over there” is actually too far to walk without severe pain. It can be embarrassing to have to ask for help, or to refuse to walk or stand when severe pain will be the likely consequence. If pain is reducing your walking speed, other people may quickly become impatient an see you as “blocking” foot traffic.

People with HMD are often embarrassed about claiming a disability because, after all, they can walk – some. They may become shy about saying that the “short distance” indicated is too far away to walk comfortably. Who hasn’t given in to the flight attendant who says, “It’s only a short walk up the jet way,” or the automotive technician who says, “Your car is just over there,” when the distance is actually 30 to 60 metres (100 to 200 feet), much further than you can walk without difficulty?

Experience shows, when you push yourself to walk or stand past your comfort zone, it can take hours — or days — to recover from the resulting pain and inflammation.

Concerns about the environment and quality of life have resulted in a focus on “walkable cities.”

Unfortunately for people with HMD, this has led to:

  • Pedestrian-only streets
  • Reduced on-street parking
  • Placement of parking garages blocks away from offices and shopping areas

Each of these trends make everyday activities inaccessible to those with HMD.

The Accessible Canada Act states that Canada will be barrier free by 2040.

So we need to work together to:

  • Remove distance to be walked and time standing as access barriers
  • Change attitudes about those who find distance to be walked, and time standing, a challenge