We were pleased to be able to contribute research to a parliamentary briefing that highlights the challenges faced by people with invisible disabilities in education and work. Thanks to Dr Daniel Derbyshire and Kirsten Whiting who are among the external reviewers for the Invisible Disabilities in Education and Employment report published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which aims to make research evidence accessible to decision-makers in parliament.
While the full post is available here, we thought we’d summarise some of the findings.
An invisible disability is a condition or impairment not visible to others, such as a mental health condition, cognitive impairment, hearing, vision and speech impairments and energy-limiting conditions.
The report found that those with invisible disabilities are conflicted over whether to disclose them due to concerns about disbelief, stigma or confidentiality, and experience difficulties accessing the services and support they need in employment, higher education and further education.
It suggested that removing societal barriers for people with invisible disabilities would enable them to participate more fully in work and education, which would also have social and economic benefits.
Interviewees from academia, disability charities and the NHS recommended strategies to remove societal barriers for people with invisible disabilities that would enable them to participate more fully in work and education, and have social and economic benefits.
These included training and mentoring schemes to improve awareness, better representation in the media, senior management and hiring roles and designing inclusive physical and online spaces that consider sensory and informational barriers to access.
Other suggestions included adjusting the structure of organisations and programmes, updating policy and guidance with examples of invisible disabilities, encouraging flexible working and learning arrangements that improve access to work and education, as well as introducing ‘adjustment passports’ that record an individual’s impairments, reducing the need for repeated disclosure.
Dr Daniel Derbyshire and Kirsten Whiting’s contribution to the report highlights the work of The Inclusivity Project, and our focus on workplace inclusion, diversity and wellbeing.
Dr Derbyshire said: “We are proud to have contributed to this important report, which we hope will help increase awareness, inclusion and support of people living with invisible disabilities in education and the workplace.
“The UK unemployment rate for disabled people is nearly twice the rate of that for non-disabled people, which in our own work we find to be consistent with implicit bias in the business community.
“We therefore need policies and strategies to combat the stigma and stereotyping that is a key barrier to employment for disabled people, and stops those with invisible disabilities from disclosing their disability.”
A summary of findings
More than 1 in 5 adults are disabled and it is estimated that 70-80% of disabilities are invisible. Invisible disability, or non-visible disability, is an impairment or health condition that is not immediately obvious, these include:
- Mental health conditions
- Neuro divergences
- Energy-limiting conditions
- Cognitive impairments
Those with invisible disabilities (also known as ‘non-visible disability’, ‘less visible disability’ and ‘hidden disability’) may experience disregard or disbelief of their disability due to lack of awareness and difficulty accessing support and services.
Strategies could be adopted to increase access and inclusion for adults with invisible disabilities in employment, and higher and further education. For example:
- Reciprocal mentoring.
- Increasing awareness and understanding via training.
- Introducing ‘passports’ for transfer to avoid repeated disclosure.
- Inclusive design that considers sensory and informational barriers.
- Promoting flexible working and learning arrangements.
Research suggests that some invisible impairments are less-well diagnosed by professionals, and people with invisible disabilities are less likely to self-identify or disclose their disability. Therefore the number of people with invisible disabilities may be much higher.
Access to support
The 2021 National Disability Strategy set out the actions the Government would take to improve the lives of disabled people. This included making workplaces more inclusive and accessible; ensuring young people fulfil their potential; and improving access to public services. The strategy suggests that there is a lack of understanding and stigma from others that creates consistent barriers in the lives of people with invisible disabilities.
The High Court ruled in 2022 that the 2021 National Disability Strategy, that sets out the actions the Government would take to improve the lives of disabled people, was ‘unlawful due to inadequate consultation’. The Government has sought permission to appeal. This means that at the time of writing 14 policies are on hold.
Concerns raised by stakeholders about the current assessment process include: impairments being assessed in isolation from each other; failure to assess impacts of cognitive fatigue and dysfunction; and variability between different assessors
Raising awareness of invisible disabilities
A number of initiatives exist that have aimed to raise awareness of invisible disabilities.
- The ‘Sunflower Lanyard’ scheme for people with invisible disabilities to discreetly indicate they may require additional support.
- Crohn’s & Colitis UK campaigned for businesses and organisations to install ‘Not Every Disability is Visible’ signs in their facilities.
- A series of comics highlighting lived experiences of invisible disabilities was developed in a collaboration between Maltese and Scottish organisations.
- ITV has launched an on-air campaign in partnership with disability equality charity Scope to highlight invisible disabilities
- Disability advocates and ambassadors have worked to increase awareness and representation by sharing their lived experience online.
People with invisible disabilities report unequal opportunities and challenges in access and inclusion in employment and in higher and further education.
When it comes to employment specifically, the employment rate for disabled people is lower than for non-disabled people, with lower rates observed for people with certain invisible disabilities. Disabled workers are likely to be paid less, and are more likely to be employed part time, self-employed or employed in the public sector.
Research has found job applicants who disclose a disability have lower call-back rate and employers report barriers to hiring disabled people
Disabled people are underrepresented in those with hiring decisions, with only 6% of such employees disabled.
A 2015 survey found that 40% of disabled workers felt uncomfortable discussing their disability at work due reasons such as career progression and stigma. Workplace inflexibility is a key driver of the disability employment gap, and flexible working is highly valued by disabled workers.
The research also looks at education, the design of public services, and a range of stakeholder suggestions around attitude and values, built and online environments, structural standards
In addition it highlights wider factors that influence the opportunities and challenges faced by people with invisible disabilities in the UK:
- Post-Covid 19 there is now a backlog of care and workforce shortages. Approx 1.4million people have long covid.
- Economic inactivity due to ill health following the pandemic is a major driver of the UK labour supply shortage.
- Cost of living is higher for disabled people – disabled people already face additional monthly costs of £583. Rising costs are adding to that burden.
- Technology innovations could remove barriers for disabled people.
The Inclusivity Project is an ERDF-funded partnership project, delivered by the University of Exeter, Disability Cornwall, Age UK Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly and CIOS LEP (Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership).