Uncovering Hidden Disabilities

There are over 14 million people with a disability in the UK. That is more than a fifth of the population. Fewer than 8% of those registered disabled use a wheelchair and around 70% of disabilities are not obvious to others. Is it time to challenge your perception of disability?


Signs of Disability

The common sign used to indicate disabled facilities is a wheelchair icon. Known as the International Symbol of Access (ISA), this was created by Danish design student Susanne Koefoed in 1968. It is used to identify disabled parking bays, priority seating on public transport or disabled toilet facilities, yet it gives a limited and misleading image of disability.


The majority of people defined as having a “physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities” have never needed a wheelchair.


Most individuals with a disability are not easy to identify. Auto-immunity diseases, Neurological conditions, Chronic Pain & Fatigue and Mental Health disorders are among the disabilities with no visible signs. However, the fact that a disability is not apparent to others does not lessen its impact on the individual’s life experience. It is often a barrier to inclusivity and accessibility.


Some of your customers and employees will have disabilities that you are unaware of. You may think that, if this were true, they would have disclosed this information to you.


Disclosure of Hidden Disabilities

In an ideal world, disclosing a disability would simply lead to greater support and understanding. It might provide additional resources or adaptable processes, to aid inclusivity. In reality, it often leads to negative judgements that hinder progress.


Research conducted by Leeds University* provides a unique insight into hidden or invisible disabilities. Some of the participant’s comments clearly explain the reasons why they don’t always share.


“The hardest thing about having a hidden disability is when I have to inform people of it, because, I know as soon as I have informed them, their attitude will change towards me…It makes it quite nerve-racking informing people because you don’t know what the consequences will be.”


“The advantage of having a hidden disability is that one has a degree of choice in whether or not to disclose it to others and when to do so. When one does make the choice to disclose, there tends to be more of a difficulty having that disability accepted as being real.”


Challenging Perceptions of Disability

At this point, I’d like you to take a moment to consider your honest response to the following five questions:


  1. How would learning about a colleague’s or customer’s hidden disability alter your perception of that individual?

  2. If there was no physical evidence of their condition, would you question whether the symptoms were genuine?

  3. Are there systems and resources in place to respond appropriately and helpfully to such a disclosure?

  4. Are there company policies for recording information shared without compromising data protection or confidentiality?

  5. If you were experiencing a condition that had a negative effect on your ability to undertake normal activities, would you be keen to share that with your employer, colleagues and other organisations?

Maybe your answers provide some understanding of why many people keep hidden disabilities to themselves.


The Sunflower Lanyard

One way in which individuals can publicly share that they have a hidden disability is to wear a sunflower lanyard. This is designed to help others understand that additional patience, support and understanding may be required, without the individual needing to disclose details of their condition.


Hidden Disability sought feedback** from 3,000 members of the Sunflower Community. They found that not having to explain and not being challenged when using accessible facilities were the main reasons why people chose to wear a sunflower.


Raising Awareness of the Sunflower lanyard can be a way for customers and employees to understand it is a useful means of communication that doesn’t require full disclosure. The cause or symptoms of the hidden disability aren’t important; what matters is providing people with the assistance they need to access what they need.


In Summary

With over 20% of the UK population having a disability, the impact of a disability positive attitude, adaptable company policies and helpful resources are broad. If staff are confident in how to respond to disclosures and sunflower lanyards, they will be able to deliver inclusive customer service.



*https://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/library/brookes-NUJ-Hidden-disabilities-Report-plus-Lena.pdf

** https://hiddendisabilitiesstore.com/insights/post/who-are-our-sunflower-community


Further Reading:

Sunflower Lanyards https://www.helenpettifer.com/post/what-does-the-sunflower-lanyard-mean-to-you

RAiISE – invisible illnesses in children for educators: https://raiise.co.uk/



© 2021 by Helen Pettifer Training. Created by Lawrence Wood - Transformational Communications.

  • Connect with Helen on LinkedIn
  • Subscribe to Helen's channel on YouTube
  • Listen to Helen's podcast on Spotify