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Not all disabilities are visible

This week (December 3) marks the International Day of People with Disabilities 2020, an annual celebration of people with disabilities. This year the theme is Hidden Disabilities, a recognition that some disabilities are not always apparent.

These might include mental illness, chronic pain or fatigue, sight or hearing impediments, brain injuries, neurological disorders and learning disabilities. Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many people have been isolated and where services have been disrupted, being aware of the hidden disabilities people may have is more important than ever. Here, James O’Neil, Regional Manager, North West, for Cygnet’s Supported Living Services, explains what it means to have a hidden disability, and how we can all help.

When I think about what having a hidden disability means, I think of people we might meet walking down the street, we might nod to them and never notice any difference. The service I support through my work is aimed at helping people with autism and learning disabilities, and I know that it’s not immediately apparent to other people how their disability might affect them, and to appreciate the difficulties they may have.

Through Cygnet’s supported living services in the North West of England, where I am based, our goal is to provide opportunities for people to gain more independence and freedom in their lives. It might be that they are stepping out of hospital and have a number of support needs. The first questions we ask are how can we maximise that person’s citizenship, what do they want to achieve in their lives and how we can create a support plan around their individual needs. Part of the supported living process is thinking how that person can be included and have the same rights and access as someone without a disability.

According to the WHO World Report on Disability, 15 per cent of the world’s population, or more than 1 billion people, are living with a disability. We also know that people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the health, social and economic consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and as we move towards a new year, there is a sense of urgency that in a post-pandemic world, we need to strengthen our collective efforts to ensure universal access to essential services, including health support, education and employment so that people with disabilities are not left behind.

Many things in our daily lives that we take for granted, such as paying bills, joining a gym and speaking up at work can often be a struggle for people with any disability, illness or medical condition, particularly leaving hospital after a long stay. Someone with a learning difficulty may need support with travel, accessing their hobbies and interests, registering with a GP, signing up to an internet package, getting medication and finding someone to help them with medication.

When it comes to the workplace, there may be additional challenges, and that’s where employers need to be aware of the protections offered to people with disabilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Equality Act 2010. This legislation has improved things significantly. Through Cygnet, we focus on supporting people to access opportunities that meet their goals.

The good news is that assisted technology and new processes have made things much easier. As an employer, it’s important to be aware of what adjustments can be made to help a colleague with a disability. A person with a diagnosis of autism, for example, might have a real skill and offer a valuable contribution to a company, but they might also need support with information processing. This doesn’t require a huge amount of extra resources. The key is recognising this so that when team leaders are addressing staff or giving an appraisal, for example, for that person to feel included, it might need someone to break it down a little, and to support them to manage their responses. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many cases where the individuals we supported have sent off a job application form saying they need support with communication, only for the employer or hiring manager to go quiet. This is in the context of us supporting people to paid employment and experienced this process via application to job roles.

Sadly, many people with a disability will often not seek help due to ongoing stigma around disability, discrimination, or neglect. As a supported living health and social care provider, we are responsible to ensure the rights of our clients the individuals we support as a citizen, and that can mean advocating on their behalf to get that support. Particularly as we mark International Day of People with Disabilities 2020 this week, the onus is on all of us to be aware of disabilities that might be hidden, to challenge the way we think about disability and to celebrate the achievements and contribution of people with disabilities.

You can find out more about International Day of People with Disabilities 2020 here

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