Hidden Disabilities

Overview

A hidden disability is a condition where the person suffers from symptoms that may not be obvious or apparent to others. Their condition may cause fatigue or pain, and this may be continual or intermittent. The impact of hidden disabilities on daily life and study can be considerable, often impacting on stamina and concentration. Students with hidden disabilities may struggle with group work activities and meeting deadlines. A flexible approach is required to support students with hidden disabilities, allowing them to pace themselves and work to a level that they are comfortable with. The key thing is to get to know the student.

Symptoms

Examples of hidden disabilities are chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, pulmonary obstructive disease, severe psoriasis or eczema.

What you might notice or observe

  • Chronic pain – pain which lasts for longer than three months.
  • Chronic fatigue – tiredness and fatigue lasting longer than three months and not improved with sleep.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Problems with stamina.
  • Fluctuation of symptoms – feeling well on some days and symptoms flaring up on other days.
  • Vulnerability to stress – stress can trigger a flare up of symptoms.
  • Using mobility aids such as crutches.

This is not a full and comprehensive list of signs and symptoms. There are a range of symptoms that may affect students. For more information on hidden disabilities please see the resources section for further reading.

An Interview With…

In this video, Dr. Andrea Wright (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Edge Hill) discusses her experience of supporting a student with PTSD and anxiety and offers her advice to staff who might be in a similar position.

In this video, Dr. Elke Weissman from the Department of Media at Edge Hill, discusses her experience of supporting a student with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and offers her advice to staff who might be in a similar position.

What You Should Do

Positive ways you can support a student with a hidden disability

Listen to the student as they describe the impact their illness has on them.

Accept that symptoms can be very variable, fluctuating from day to day, and can affect concentration and stamina.

Be aware that symptoms of the same illness/condition can vary from person to person.

If your student’s disability or condition is affecting their wellbeing or mental health see our Mental Health toolkits for advice on how to support them.

Check if there are any reasonable adjustments you can put in place to support the student.

What Not to Do

Don’t dismiss the student’s condition or question it, e.g. by saying “Is that a real illness?”

Don’t suggest ways for the student to manage the condition such as “Would going swimming help?”

Don’t infer the condition is psychosomatic – the condition is real; the symptoms are real for the student.

Don’t say “You don’t look disabled.”

How to Refer

Check if there are any reasonable adjustments you can put in place to support the student.

Early referral can prevent students falling behind with their work. Contact the Disability Support team to make a referral if:

  • You are aware the student has a hidden disability and requires support.
  • The student doesn’t have a Student Support Plan in place already.
  • You feel you need support around reasonable adjustments.

If the student requires support with anything else including accommodation, money advice or wellbeing support contact the Catalyst Helpdesk to make a referral.

If your student’s disability or condition is affecting their wellbeing or mental health see our Mental Health toolkits for advice on how to support them.

Resources

Useful links and further reading

Many hidden disabilities have organisations and support groups which offer advice. There are too many to mention here, but internet searches can often be valuable sources of information and can help us to understand more about the student’s diagnosis, e.g.:

What is hidden disability?

British Heart Foundation

Endometriosis

Fibromyalgia

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome