Disability History Month this year is running from 18 November to 18 December. One of the themes this year is hidden impairments. Over 6.5 million people in the UK are thought to have a hidden impairment. Also commonly called invisible disabilities, these are impairments that are not immediately visible, and often do not fit common stereotypes of what disabled people look like. A wide range of conditions can be considered hidden impairments, with these often very different from one another. While these conditions are hidden, many people are still mistreated or experience difficulties because of their condition.
The legal definition of disability in the UK encompasses hidden impairments. While there is no definitive list of hidden impairments, government disability guidance explicitly includes a large number of conditions that are commonly considered hidden impairments. Such impairments are wide-ranging and diverse, including autism, chronic pain, mental health conditions, learning difficulties, HIV, diabetes and hearing impairments.
Despite this official recognition, those with hidden impairments often experience hardship because of the hidden nature of their impairment. Stories where strangers challenge disabled people using facilities such as disabled parking and toilets because they ‘do not look disabled’ are unfortunately common. A recent survey of disabled workers by the Wales Trade Union Congress found that disabled employees are often required to prove they were disabled and experience accusations that they are ‘faking it’.
Such responses often result from the narrow stereotypes of disabled people held by many. When picturing a disabled person, many still think of wheelchair users and people with guide dogs, even though the vast majority of disabled people do not conform to these stereotypes. The charity Scope found that 43% of the British public claim not to know any disabled people, but this does not match up with the fact that in the 2010 census roughly 1 in 5 people reported being disabled or having a ‘limiting’ long-term health condition. It seems very unlikely that almost half of the population do not know someone with a disability, rather it seems more likely that many people are not aware that a disability may be hidden or less visible. Such stereotypes may also put off people with hidden impairments asserting their rights, and may push them to attempt to conceal their impairments.
Having a hidden impairment can be a very isolating experience, as the non-visible nature of the conditions can make it difficult to meet people with similar conditions. Allan Sutherland, a disabled writer and poet with epilepsy, described this feeling in his speech Coming Out Disabled as one of being 'exiles in an able-bodied world'. 1 in 50 people have some kind of epilepsy, however, growing up Sutherland knew of no one else with epilepsy. The stigma surrounding epilepsy meant that many were reluctant to share their experiences when Sutherland was growing up, denying him the opportunity to feel part of a wider community of epileptics for twenty years.
You can find out more about Disability History Month and hidden impairments using the links below:
Disability History Month - https://ukdhm.org/
Scope - https://www.scope.org.uk/campaigns/invisible-disabilities-itv/