Invisible disabilities are a significant but often overlooked aspect of the ever evolving landscape in UK universities. Invisible disabilities are disabilities that are otherwise not immediately apparent, for example, mental health conditions, neuro-divergencies, and ‘non-visible’ health conditions. The list can go on. These disabilities are proven to present unique challenges to students who navigate the academic and social landscapes that are often not designed with their needs in mind.
Understanding Invisible Disabilities:
Invisible disabilities are made up of a wide variety of conditions and impairments, as mentioned above. These conditions are not immediately apparent to others unlike visible disabilities. This, therefore, leading to an immediate lack of awareness and understanding on the matter. This can often leave individuals feeling stigmatised and discredited. It is important to also note that navigating the stigma associated with disability can be even more difficult when you have a non-visible disability and this can also make it harder for individuals to seek and receive support as their needs are not readily recognised.
The Impact on University Students:
Students with invisible disabilities may oftentimes face an array of unique challenges, especially in further educational institutions such as universities. These can include difficulties in managing academic workload, accessing support services and systems, and these students will also most likely suffer from social isolation and exclusion. The pressure of balancing their condition alongside their academic responsibilities can be extremely detrimental to not only their academic performance but mental health. Many people with invisible disabilities have reported challenges in access and inclusion within public services and infrastructures. Therefore, demonstrating that not only is it an issue within educational institutions yet society as a whole thus putting these individuals at a disadvantage.
Addressing the Issue in Universities:
To support students with invisible disabilities, universities should aim to adopt inclusive policies as well as practices. This can include training their staff and faculty to not only recognise but to also accommodate students throughout all years. This can look like offering alternative assessment methods, offering flexible deadlines, and having accessible mental health services. Removing societal barriers for people will enable them to participate in civil life. In order to help change the perception of such disabilities, institutions should aim to participate in awareness campaigns. This will help to improve awareness and understanding thus may be a big contributor in reducing stigma and exclusionary practices. An example of how we here at the University of Westminster can contribute to this change would be to first address barriers within our online environments such as Blackboard and the Student Hub. We should feature inclusive designs and should consider sensory and informational barriers that may impede students from efficiently engaging with the websites. We should also encourage flexible working and learning arrangements by implementing systems that are more favourable and acceptant of the wide diversity presented to us.
Encouraging Self-Advocacy and Peer Support:
Empowering students to advocate for their needs is in fact the most important and crucial step on this pathway to change. Westminster as well as other universities can help to facilitate this by providing concise pathways to access support services as well as creating peer support networks. By encouraging students to share their experiences, as well as creating societies, a sense of community will be fostered.
Addressing the challenges faced by these students with invisible disabilities will require a concerted amount of effort, from not only universities by society as a whole. The implementation of inclusive policies and practices will be imperative for impactful change. By raising awareness and understanding among staff and students, and by providing appropriate support, Westminster will be able to ensure an equitable academic environment for all students on campus.
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