There is estimated to be over 11 million people in the UK living with some form of disability. The word ‘disability’ itself is an umbrella term for pretty much anything that can impair a person’s quality of life, physically or mentally. But the physical disabilities are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, it is thought that up to 70% of all disabilities in the UK are ‘hidden’; they are not immediately obvious to others – like a wheelchair user might be obviously partially physically disabled.
Hidden disabilities and discrimination
Hidden disabilities have their own challenges, and can just be as challenging – and in some cases even more so – than more ‘obvious’ ones.
Sometimes, people with hidden disabilities can face discrimination from others who do not think they are really disabled. This is because, quite simply, having a disability does not automatically mean that it is disabling. This confusion can sometimes result in unwarranted prejudice. For example, a person with a blue badge, parking in a disabled parking space or using a disabled public toilet may seem , from the outside, ‘fine’ and thus, subject to a degree of suspicion and even hostility.
Blue badges can be life-changing for people with disabilities, as they serve to make access to shops and institutions easier. But the law is constantly changing over what the blue badge covers. The most significant changes in over half a century took place on 30 August 2019, when the Government expanded eligibility to include autism, brain injuries, and anxiety disorders for the first time.
Eligibility for a blue badge with a hidden disability seems to stem from two major factors. One, if the disability makes it difficult to walk. And two, if the environment itself poses a form of psychological distress. This is why both mental and physical hidden disabilities are included, from amnesia to irritable bowel disease.
These blue badge reforms will significantly improve the lives of millions of people. The ‘unseen’, who might struggle to get from place to place without blue badge assistance. Here are some of the people most likely to benefit, those groups who live with the most common types of hidden disabilities:
- Anxiety and depression. In 2013 it was reported that 8.2 million people had anxiety disorders in the UK. More recent statistics place the number at around 6% of the population. Severe anxiety can result in anxiety attacks and can even trigger other problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Severe anxiety users can be very susceptible to the environment.
- Fibromyalgia. There is estimated to be around 2 million people in the UK with some form of fibromyalgia, a long term condition that can cause pain all over the body. It can also cause other invisible symptoms, such as increased sensitivity to pain, headaches and problems with memory (‘fibro-fog’).
- Brain injury. There are an estimated 1 million people in the UK living with a brain injury, the severity of which can be very large. Some brain-injured people are barely impacted, while others might have life-changing symptoms that affect memory and speaking.
- Autism. There are an estimated 700,000 people in the UK who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Like with brain injuries, there is a large gap in how life-changing this type of developmental disorder can be. Autistic people tend to be more sensitive to lights and sounds, and busy places and commuting can be a form of psychological distress.
People living with all of these conditions are likely to experience some difficulties physically, mentally, or both.
Combine all those numbers up, and we are looking at almost 1 in 7 people in the UK. Not all of those people will have a disability so severe that it’s life-altering, but many of them will do.
These numbers should serve as an important reminder that we should always stop and think before we judge; before we make assumptions. That no matter how a person ‘looks’, things are not always what they appear.
Image credit: Shutterstock
Eliza Cochrane works for GBS Health Clinic.
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