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Out Of Sight, Not Mind! Raising Awareness Of Hidden Disabilities

Posted by Mike Phipps on July 23, 2020

A sunflower against a racing green background colour with the words – The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Scheme – underneath

A 24-year-old with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and tendinitis pulls into a Blue Badge car parking spot, only to be told she ‘doesn’t look disabled’.

This is a specific story from Lincolnshire Live, but an everyday occurrence for millions of Britons living with hidden disabilities – a clear indication of how much we need to continue raising awareness around the subject.

One in five UK residents lives with some form of disability, with many symptoms being invisible. From hearing impairment to autism to chronic back pain, there’s a long list of conditions that might stop someone from leading what’s often referred to as a ‘normal’ life.

According to a study conducted last year on behalf of the charity Crohn’s & Colitis UK, 9 in 10 people are willing to challenge ‘healthy-looking’ individuals they see using accessible toilets. They believe they are doing society a ‘service’. In reality, their actions often lead to awkward and embarrassing exchanges that have no basis in fact and could result in a direct risk to the health, or safety of those being unfairly accused.

You only need to read our recent film review of ‘The Silent Child, where protagonist Libby’s own family don’t initially realise she is deaf, to appreciate how easy it is for things to be missed and misjudged. We might consider ourselves compassionate, empathetic and aware, but judgement calls are frequently based on first impressions and assumptions. It’s almost as if we’d never been told about books and covers.

One significant step forward was launched in 2016 at London’s Gatwick Airport. The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Scheme is simple but effective. A discreet lanyard can be worn to let staff and other people know you, or a member of your party has a hidden disability. By 2018, the scheme had been rolled out to airports across the UK and is now well on its way to becoming an international movement involving shops, restaurants, hotels and more.

The outbreak of coronavirus has made the subject of hidden disabilities more sensitive and urgent. Rules and etiquette on the high street, in supermarkets and other public places, have changed beyond recognition. Many people feel on edge while outside, increasing the likelihood of stress points boiling over. Encroachment on personal space and concerns over face coverings are just two examples of possible catalysts. Neither leaves much room for the often specialised needs and requirements of people with hidden disabilities.

It’s no wonder the St John’s Shopping Centre in Perth has recently announced it will offer the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyards on a no-questions basis to ensure other members of the public do not challenge customers who are unable to wear facemasks.

Go North East, the largest bus company in North East England, also recently signed up, joining a host of other travel firms in recognising this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.

These news snippets are welcome, but there is still a long way to go.

A recent article about Bracknell Forest Council showed nearly half of applicants with hidden disabilities were denied a Blue Badge. And this is before we come to ongoing horror stories from the Department of Work and Pensions, which has been regularly cited as rejecting benefit claimants based on a ‘work fit’ appearance.

There’s plenty that can be done to improve things, and national campaigns are far from the only way to raise awareness. Lynda Carter, an equality representative, was the focus of a 2018 TUC case study, in part because of her approach to a disabled toilet she found being used for storage. Management didn’t realise that they had staff with hidden disabilities. Lynda took the time to explain, and the problem was solved. Perhaps more importantly, opinions changed in the process.

The ‘Disabled’ signage used on toilets has itself had a negative impact on public behaviour. Still, thankfully, this is also beginning to change. The archetypal stick figure-in-wheelchair was never going to make someone stop and consider all those who don’t need a cane or stick to walk but still need access to that particular bathroom. There’s increasing traction behind adopting new imagery combining ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘disabled’ — and that switch can’t come soon enough.

Ultimately, it’s about keeping hidden disabilities visible as a subject, in respectful ways and an understanding of how sensitive and personal this conversation can be.

Through ongoing representation, effective changes and keeping the message in plain view, we can ensure that just because a person’s disability seems to be out of sight, it’s not out of mind, and their needs are never overlooked.