July 10th is Disability Awareness Day, and so I would like to take this opportunity to discuss the disabilities which people may not be aware of or even recognise in the community.
Hidden Disabilities can be defined as a physical or mental health condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities, yet may not be immediately apparent or recognised. As a Housing Support Worker, I find myself providing a lot of practical as well as emotional support for people affected by Hidden Disabilities which have a huge impact on their quality of life but may go unrecognised…

  • Myalgic encephalopathy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

It is a reality that the current economic climate has bred a lot of stigma around people with Hidden Disabilities, both in the wider community and systematically. People are often accused of faking or imagining their disabilities. People make their own assumptions about another’s ability to work based on observations. It was even uncovered in a recent documentary that people’s income is being retracted on the basis of tests that are biased towards immediate physical ability versus psychological distress and long-term pain. In the spirit of Disability Awareness day, I would like to look into some of the mistaken beliefs around Hidden Disabilities…

FALSE: People with hidden disabilities can’t work…

By law employers cannot discriminate and have to make reasonable adjustments to support their disabled employees, which may not only include physical adaptations but may include flexible working hours.
A common accusation made against people with hidden disabilities by the less informed is that people are faking or exaggerating their symptoms in order to avoid work. In actuality nine out of ten disabled people on average are currently in work or have been in work, representing a large majority of people who have a high motivation to work. Two in five people feel that there is a lack of available job opportunities due to several barriers, including employer attitudes, availability of support, and a lack of flexibility or understanding on the part of the employer.
To address these issues several agencies offer support and training to employers on how to create and maintain a positive, accessible working environment, including the British Association for Supported Employment (BASE), Clear Talents and the Business Disability Forum (BDF).

FALSE: If people don’t use an aid, they don’t have a disability…

It is true that many people who are disabled do need use of an aid such as a walking stick, wheelchair, or supervision from a care worker. However some people will not require use of an aid all of the time across every situations, some people do not require an aid at all and some people simply choose not to use these until they have no choice. In fact, some studies suggest that within chronic health conditions such as ME/CFS it is important to try and continue moving as long as possible in order to slow the progress of the condition. It is wrong to assume that you can recognise a person who may require a disabled space or disabled seat on the bus solely on the basis of whether or not they require a wheelchair/walking stick.

FALSE: If you have a disability, your doctor can diagnose it…

Frustratingly for the person, not all physical disabilities can be given an official diagnosis. Doctors may be able to propose potential diagnosis through eliminating other potential issues, however for physical health issues attributed to functionality such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, it can be hard to pin difficulties to a specific diagnosis as there are no specific tests to confirm this. These are referred to as ‘medically unexplained physical symptoms’ and may involve fatigue, pain, headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness and feeling sick. GPs may not be able to dispel the underlying condition, but tend to be able to suggest ways to manage and decrease individual symptoms.

FALSE: Mental health doesn’t count as a disability…

This is completely false as the Equality Act specifically mentions that long-term mental health conditions that are likely to last 12 months or more and affect your day-to-day activities are in fact disabilities. Mental health issues can affect a person’s perception of the world, interactions with others, and can cross the domains of physical health. For example, depression can result in vicious cycle of fatigue, exhaustion, headaches, weight changes and even unexplained aches and pains.
Some of the negative attitudes I have personally encountered range from the condition “just being in their head; They just need to change their attitude”, to the view that anyone with mental health issues is dangerous and needs to be locked away. This negative stigma makes it even more difficult to engage with mental health as a hidden disability as people become frightened of the judgement around this label. Showing a non-judgemental, open attitude is essential to tackling the stigma and creating a safe place in our communities for everyone to come together regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or sexual orientation.

FALSE: I can’t report a hate crime against hidden disabilities…

Disability Hate Crime involves an incident or crime perceived by the victim to be motivated by the person’s disability, including hidden disabilities. The Equality Act includes special rules around people with degenerative conditions such as cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis, to protect them even before any overt, adverse affects take hold.
There have also been initiatives to address ‘Mate Crime’, where someone befriends a vulnerable person and proceeds to abuse them, financially, sexually or physically. It can be difficult to spot as this abuse is usually covert and private.
If you or someone you know is experiencing Hate Crime it is important to take action by reporting this to the police as a Disability Hate Crime and calling your local Adult Safeguarding Team. 3rd Party Reporting Centres can help with this including…

  • Stop Hate UK – 0800 138 625 – talk@stophateuk.org
  • Voice UK – 080 880 28686 – helpline@voiceuk.org.uk
  • True Vision – www.report-it.org.uk