"But you don't look disabled..." - Invisible barriers to education

Thursday 03-12-2015 - 11:00
Heather armstrong aug 15 300x300

UK Disability History Month is celebrated from 22nd November to 22nd December each year, and today is the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Here Heather Armstrong, NUS Scotland Disabled Students' Officer, talks about her own experiences and what you can do.


Today, 3rd December, is UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. One of their 3 themes for the day is including persons with invisible disabilities in society and development.

Being invisibly disabled often means you are not immediately identifiable as a disabled person. This can lead to harassment when using a reserved car parking space, side-eyes for using an accessible toilet or interrogation when asking for some extra time in an exam.

My own experience of invisible disability has often led to conversations where I have been deemed ‘not disabled enough’ or ‘not disabled at all’ which can be not only be frustrating but also hurtful. Often this stems from the comparison of my learning difficulties and mental health issues with that of those with mobility or other types of visible disability.

I know my experiences are not unique. There has long been a culture of stigma around those with disabilities but even more so for those with invisible disabilities. Recently there has been a stream of posts on social media by invisibly disabled people writing to those who have shamed them for not looking disabled enough. It breaks my heart that these people feel like they have to explain themselves to complete strangers who judged them just by the way they looked. These strangers think they are doing the world a service when in reality they are making a disabled person feel bad for just leaving the house.

There are many students who identify with being invisibly disabled and often feel this is a large barrier to their education. The fact they are not taken seriously is often the main cause of angst they feel due to the lack of understanding of those within their learning environment.

I believe it is a huge problem that people feel the way they do about how seriously their experience of disability is taken in their day to day life. At a time when our benefits are being slashed and disability hate crime is on the increase we should be doing everything we can to stand in solidarity with all disabled people for a fair and just society.

I hope that you can take this theme back to your campuses and into other aspects of your everyday lives. Some things to remember include:

  • Respect people’s autonomy – they know what they’re able to do better than you do.
  • Respect people’s limits, and remember that some days are better than others for many with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
  • Respect people’s privacy, and don’t ask about someone’s disability unless they disclose it to you first.

The UN estimates that a billion people worldwide live with disabilities. So be understanding of those around you. It might just give them the opportunity to thrive.


NUS Scotland

Related Tags :

Disability History Month,invisible disability

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