Updated: Mar 26
There was a time when people thought being disabled meant that you must look a certain way. The wheelchair symbol on toilets and parking spaces influenced everyone’s view. If you had a disability, you were expected to be a wheelchair user.
I have a certain bank card with my bank which supports my dyslexia. I can’t count how many times in my local post office I was asked to prove I was disabled before I could pay. Even today in shops, where staff are new to the role of cashier and don’t recognise the card they ask for proof.
Recently, whilst out at a local theatre on a educational trip, of our learners was told off for using the disabled toilet by an indignant member of the public. The individual concerned was so pleased to be considered “normal’ that she thought she would "channel a bit of Nicola" and replied very calmly but very boldly and so everyone else could hear - that not all disabilities are visible and that she did not need to prove to anyone there her right to use the toilet. What she didn't say was that she had a radar key and that allowed her access. I was so proud of her when I heard all about it!
Things are changing and thankfully more people are becoming more aware of many so-called ‘hidden’ disabilities. These disabilities can’t always be seen but can be just as challenging to the people living with them.
What is a hidden disability?
A hidden disability is one that you might not immediately notice. Whilst people with hearing loss might wear a hearing aid, these aren’t as obvious as say a white stick. And some people have no visible disability aids, or at least none that people would recognise.
Every day, most of us interact with people with disabilities. Often, we may not even realise the person we’re dealing with is living with any sort of disability as there can be no visual indicators whatsoever.
Hidden disabilities can range from dyslexia, autism, ADHD, epilepsy, Crohn’s, anxiety, hearing and particle sight loss as well as many more conditions.
Are attitudes changing?
Attitudes are changing towards hidden disabilities. Awareness is growing, and people are able to access more support. But, we’re not in the perfect place just yet.
While you might have seen signs on public toilet doors reading ‘not all disabilities are visible’, and while people with certain hidden disabilities can now apply for Blue Badges, there is still work to be done.
Main stream education still has a way to go. Many of our learners tell of being frequently sent to the isolation room because of their disability. The classroom teacher unable to manage the whole class and the need of the disabled student, lessens their burden by sending the disabled learner out of the main group. This isn’t the teachers fault necessarily, there simply isn’t enough give in the system and there is very little back up for the classroom teacher.
The recent return to more formal exams where you have to show what you can know, under timed conditions in beautifully composed prose is not supporting the dyslexics to exceed.
There is still an attitude within the politics of mainstream education of "we are here to teach you to fit in with us - therefore we don't need to change what we are doing."
Students with hidden disabilities face negativity from those that don’t recognise what they’re dealing with. Getting a diagnose takes a very long time some times, girls with autism are particularly missed, boarded line dyslexics are not offered enough time or the written material in the right font or on coloured paper - which is why some of you are opting for home schooling.
Orchard Training is run by a teacher with a hidden disability. The aim here is deliver education around the small problem of being different. And not continuing on with the experience where the learner’s needs are unrecognised, ignored or completely brushed aside. It is ok to be different. We are all capable of learning and what we learn, where we learn, when we learn and more importantly how we learn it - is up to us.
How are hidden disabilities becoming more widely recognised?
Awareness is spreading. Social media has played a big part, allowing the voices of those with a whole range of disabilities to be heard. Nowadays, people can share their experiences with a much wider audience. Others are starting to see how life can be impacted if you have a hidden disability and are becoming more aware of those around them.
Organisations and companies are also getting on board, doing their bit for those with hidden disabilities. Many retailers now offer a regular Autism Hour, where lights are dimmed and music is turned off to help autistic customers to shop.
The Sunflower Lanyard, a visible indicator showing you have a hidden disability, is now recognised at many UK shops, airports, and attractions.
If you have a hidden disability, it is getting easier to ask for support.
How else are hidden disabilities being recognised?
As awareness grows, many people find that employers are being more supportive too. If you have a hidden disability, you may now find your employer more forthcoming about accommodating things for you at work. Accommodations might range from flexible working to additional tools that can help. Employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments for both hidden disabilities and more obvious conditions.
Some of the best examples I have come across are, a firm whose switchboard operator is blind and Bonnie the guide dog sits in the room with her owner while he works. Regular breaks have been built in to the day for walkies and toileting.
Dragon Naturally Speaking, a speech recognition program being load on to the laptops and desk tops of a nation wide company.
A company realising a small number of employees were going through a tough time and taking lots of sick days, employed a mental health worker to see all the employees. Having listened to the advice and recommendation of the mental health worker made readjustments in order to make the whole work place less stressful for all the staff and not just for the ones who where taking a high number of sick days off.
Another company when told that the medication of one employee was going to change and during the change over there would be side effects, arranged for the employee to work 45 minutes and have a 15 minute break every hour. This was reviewed regularly over the month until the employee was able to resume work normally.
Finally, a group of employees with learning difficulties who loved their line manager that when he had been injured in a car accident and couldn't get around and check up on them, they came up with the idea (themselves) to take regular photos of their work and sending these to him, so he didn't have to leave the building. They used their mobil phones to ping every 30 minutes to remind them. When I asked them why, they told me that the manager in question had taken the time to train them, so they could hold down the job. They understood he wanted them to have the job and they wanted to work. He had invested his time in them.
What is it like to have a hidden disability?
If you haven’t got a hidden disability, then it’s easy to assume that those around you are really no different to you. That’s why hidden disabilities have gone unnoticed by many people for so long. However, a hidden disability can present as many challenges in daily life as something like an inability to walk. For example, for some dyslexics and cognitive dyspractics, planning days in advance and turning up to appointments on time and in the right place is very difficult. This is a simple skill, many of us might take for granted. Yet these hidden disabilities can make it more difficult for people to do things like being able to shop, pay bills on time, use public transport, socialise, access education or even work.
How can we all do our bit for those with hidden disabilities?
Many people with hidden disabilities are not asking for any special treatment. Instead, they need wider understanding and a more accepting society. They need people to consider how they could be more accommodating to other people with different disabilities at times when they might be struggling.
Time is the most valuable gift you can give – be patient!