Breaking the Stigma around Hidden Disabilities In Students
In this blog, we want to shed light on a very important topic that often gets overlooked when discussing university life: hidden disabilities among students. When we think of university life, we often envision bustling campuses, late-night study sessions, and the pursuit of knowledge. However, beneath the surface, there lies a diverse community of students facing unique challenges related to hidden disabilities.
Through this blog, we want to improve awareness and understanding of hidden disabilities aiming to provide a comprehensive guide for students, faculty, and all members of the university community. We will explore the various types of hidden disabilities, discuss the challenges faced by students, and offer practical tips and resources for support.
What are Hidden Disabilities?
Hidden disabilities are conditions that may not be immediately apparent to others but can significantly impact a student’s academic journey and overall well-being. These disabilities often remain concealed, leading to misconceptions and misunderstandings. This includes ADHD, autism, anxiety disorders, chronic illnesses, and several other learning differences.
Students with hidden disabilities might find it difficult to adapt to the most frequently used teaching methods or learning environments. Failure to recognize and acknowledge them can prevent them from reaching their academic goals as efficiently as others.
As of 2022, 1 in 5 of the UK population are disabled and 80% of them have a hidden disability. This is not a small number and further goes to show that it is more common than you think and it is very important to raise awareness on this topic.
A study done to understand the experiences of students with hidden disabilities revealed that when it came to the interpersonal challenges that are faced by students with hidden disabilities, the main issues were lack of awareness, sensitivity, disclosure, and stigma surrounding them.
A lack of understanding and stigma surrounding these disabilities can make it harder for people to disclose them and can prevent students from reaching out for the help that they need.
What are the different types of Hidden Disabilities?
We have gathered a list of the commonly occurring hidden disabilities and how they can impact students.
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder which can cause hyperactivity and difficulty in paying attention. The symptoms have been classified based on their impact on distractibility/inattention and impulsivity/ hyperactivity.
People often assume that if someone isn’t hyper, then they do not have ADHD and this cannot be far from the truth. Moreover, these symptoms manifest differently among women and men. A lot of people don’t get diagnosed till much later on in their life due to the common misconceptions surrounding them.
People with Inattentive / Distractable ADHD typically have difficulty in concentrating, paying attention to detail, listening, organising, and time management. People with Impusilve/ Hyperactive ADHD typically have difficulty in remaining quiet, staying seated, and can get restless and fidgety. This is not an exhaustive list and there are several other symptoms that people with different types of ADHD have that shouldn’t be ignored.
If you would like to learn more about ADHD and its symptoms, click here.
Students with ADHD might find it difficult to retain long lists of instructions or information given orally, take notes simultaneously while listening, structuring, and organising their ideas amongst several others.
It is important to make the teaching methods and the material accessible to students so that they can keep up in a way that works best for them. Click here to read a blog on tips for university students with ADHD.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that impacts the way people communicate, interact with others, learn, and behave.
People with autism usually find it difficult to interact and communicate with people, have restricted interests, have repetitive behaviours, and have deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors amongst others according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Students with ASD can have difficulty in reading and responding to the social world around them (also known as social blindness), have a preference for set routines, have issues with self-regulation, and more.
A student from the University Of Bristol shared her account of what it was like being a student with autism while pursuing her degree. In her account, she highlighted that she was a student who did not fit the typical representation of autistic people in media since she knew how to make eye contact, was sarcastic and for the most part, knew how to fit in casually even if it didn’t feel natural to her.
This is known as masking which is behaviour used by autistic people to hide the signature characteristics of the disorder and often includes mirroring other neurotypical people’s behaviour.
As a student with autism, she found it difficult to adapt to changes that might seem insignificant to others like the changes in routine when it comes to semesters, houses, subjects, and classes. This significantly affected her when it was sudden as this didn’t give her enough time to prepare for such a change. Moreover, her anxiety levels were also higher in university which prevented her from fully reaching her potential in exams. People with autism can also have difficulty understanding assessments with a lot of instructions, so if the professors were not particularly clear in their explanation of assessments, this can also negatively impact her performance while it might not seem like a big deal to neurotypical students.
These are just a few of the issues that were faced by her as a university student with autism. Click here to read the full article.
So if there are times when it seems like the questions being asked in the class are simple or unnecessary, it is important to note that there are a lot of students who might have difficulty processing such information, so being patient and understanding is just one way this can be made easier for them.
Dyslexia is a commonly overlooked hidden disability that affects the person’s ability to read, write, and spell effectively.
People with dyslexia might read slowly find it difficult to process and understand words, have issues with spelling and writing, and have difficulty in the ways words and its meaning are stored in their memory.
Although it usually doesn’t affect one’s ability to comprehend complex concepts, when it comes to studying, people with dyslexia have difficulties which makes different methods of studying such as taking notes in lectures, reading coursework from textbooks, writing assignments, and others a lot more difficult than usual.
British Dyslexia Association is a great website to learn more about dyslexia as well as all the resources that are available to you as a student or employer and how you can navigate them.
Chronic illnesses are conditions or diseases that persist for a long period. There are several different kinds of chronic illnesses and all of them have varying levels of impact on one’s ability to function effectively. Common chronic illnesses include arthritis, diabetes, cancer, mental illness, and more.
A study done to understand the experiences of students with chronic illness pursuing higher education revealed that most students felt that their illness was often misunderstood leading to strict policing of academic regulations by some members as opposed to support. Many students also felt undervalued by the university because they didn’t prioritise accessibility.
Since chronic illnesses are so vast, there isn’t a set list of symptoms that can be quickly recognised. But this doesn’t mean that academic faculty and peers should overlook their illness and or pain, just because it is not visible to others.
What can be done by Universities to make it more accessible for students with hidden disabilities?
Since hidden disabilities don’t all have the same symptoms, each of them will have different ways in which the student can be better accommodated. But as an academic faculty, whether it be a professor or tutor, it is important to take the time to understand what the student is struggling with and try your help them in any way possible. This can be flexibility with deadlines, explaining assessment guidelines in detail whenever requested, and more. And as students, it is always best to ask them how you can accommodate them better.
There are several resources available for students in the UK to help them with their academic journey.
Disabled Students Allowance – to cover study-related costs you have because of any disability. The amount and kind of support depends on the type of disability
Diversity and Ability – Provides free resources for disabled and neurodivergent students
Disabled Students UK -A good resource to learn more about disability and the support that needs to be given
University Disability Support Team – you can contact your university’s disability support team to help with any arrangements that can be made
We should never forget that students with hidden disabilities should be able to succeed as students with the support that they need. As students, faculty, and staff, we have the power to create a more inclusive and empathetic environment that enables all students to flourish academically and personally and we should take the measures to ensure that they do so.
If you are someone who has a hidden disability, remember that you are not alone on this journey. Reach out to campus disability resource centers, counseling services, and support networks to find the assistance you need. Your journey may be unique, but it is just as important as everyone else.