By James Thorp, University of Birmingham English with Creative Writing.
There’s a common misconception that the term ‘disabled’ refers exclusively to wheelchair users. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines a disability as “A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities; or the fact or state of having such a condition.” Yes, being a wheelchair user is certainly included in this definition, however, disability encompasses a diverse range of physical and mental conditions. There are many conditions which are almost completely hidden away from the world visually, be it a mental health condition like depression and schizophrenia or a physical condition like Crohn’s disease, or sight/hearing impairments which all have a disabling impact on a person’s life.
There are some issues that come with having a disability that is completely invisible to the outside world; here are some of the most important ones to note and how to deal with them:
“Not looking disabled”
Anyone with an invisible disability has most likely had to deal with this one already. If not, they certainly will in the future. Sometimes, you’re going to feel too ill to do something, or you’ll be particularly tired and struggle to work as at your usual pace. If your colleagues are unaware of your condition, they will be left to draw their own conclusions as to why you are not performing at your best. Moreover, you may end up worrying unnecessarily that they think you are lazy or making excuses; by sharing relevant information with your colleagues about your disability you can overcome this issue. That said, never feel obliged to share any more than you want to; it is entirely your choice what information you share, and when you do so.
Your manager and HR department will be able to support you in sharing relevant information about your condition with colleagues; if you prefer they can do so on your behalf either in person or via an email approved by you.
“The awkward chat”
When and how you share information about your disability is entirely your choice; you may be prompted to share information about your disability in order to inform others about challenges you face due to your condition and support or adjustments you require as a result. The benefits of sharing information about your disability are significant, despite how daunting it can seem, as it can offer you access to disability support at university or in the workplace. As a student, support and adjustments including the provision of specialist equipment, coursework extensions when required due to extenuating circumstances and exam provisions such as extra time or a scribe can really help put you on a level playing field with your non-disabled peers. As a result, you can manage your workload better and get reasonable adjustments to really help with an otherwise quite stressful (yet exciting) part of your life!
At work, being open about an invisible disability can really help you communicate with your organisation about your needs in the workplace to ensure that you can work and achieve without disadvantage and unnecessary struggle day to day. It can also help your boss and co-workers understand any challenges you may face in your day to day tasks and encourages them to be patient and understanding.
A common concern when you have a condition that is invisible – especially at work – is that you may feel you need to ‘prove’ you have a certain condition and the impact it has on you. If medical documents are requested by your employer, a letter from your GP or hospital consultant is usually all that will be required.
Openness is the key
The reason these conditions can have challenges such as those mentioned in this article is because they are hidden away. By talking about invisible disabilities, writing about and shining a light on them and fundraising for the people affected, we can all do our part to raise awareness of the conditions; helping to relieve some of the stress of living with them for those affected directly or indirectly. More than that, the increased honest discussion about them helps to remove the taboo of having a health condition, reduce the amount of awkward chats and encourage other people to seek medical help and diagnosis if they develop symptoms.