Having an unseen disability is a struggle. You face judgement from society and a lack of empathy from peers, academics and employers. I personally have been fired from jobs due to my disability, and faced disciplinary action from employers relating to issues that, because of my disabilities, were beyond my control.

For non-neurotypical people, including those on the autistic spectrum like myself, tasks which may seem simple, such as turning up to work on time or smiling more to customers, become much harder to handle.

People with non-physical disabilities face barriers every day, put up by people who fail to understand, or in some cases just plain ignore, their individual struggles because they are not necessarily visible to the naked eye.

Just because you have a disability that cannot be seen does not mean you don’t face systematic oppression from an inherently ableist society.

Barriers to education are a clear example of this oppression. Prior to coming to university many students receive no assistance whatsoever to tackle the barriers that come from learning difficulties (such as dyslexia or autism), long-term health conditions or disabilities. This has been shown to restrict access to higher education. According to the Labour Force Survey in 2012, disabled people are three times more likely to hold no formal qualifications, compared to their non-disabled counterparts.

If a disabled person does make it to university, their struggles are likely to continue.

There are a multitude of reasons why having a disability or health condition can make it harder to complete daily tasks. Just one example is dyslexia. The average reading speed per minute is around 200-250 words, but thanks to my dyslexia my reading speed comes in at 140. This means that writing essays and revising for exams will be much harder for me, and be a much slower process than they would be for someone who does not have dyslexia.

Many academic institutions fail to acknowledge the difficulties faced by disabled people, especially those with more complex or less visible conditions, which perpetuates the attainment gap for disabled students.

Just because you have a disability that cannot be seen does not mean you don’t face systematic oppression from an inherently ableist society.

One example is of my own experience of the University of Sheffield’s Achieve More programme, designed to help first year students get more out of their degree and help them in the future.

However, those running the programme completely failed to understand my accessibility needs and did not communicate efficiently with DDSS (Disability and Dyslexia Support Service) in order to put concessions in place for students who may need extra support. With disability affecting around 11.6 per cent of the population, this was a huge mistake.

Eventually I, perhaps along with many others, were forced to withdraw from the programme because of my disabilities. This is just one example of the opportunities that those with disabilities can miss out on if academic institutions do not provide support for the barriers which some people face.

Disabled people also face social barriers at university and beyond because they are frequently unable to take part in many of the extra-curricular activities on offer, something which is often taken for granted by other students.

The Sheffield Students’ Union Council, for example, reserves the right to remove any councillor who misses more than two meetings without sending due notice. If you have a memory-related condition such as an SpLD (Specific Learning Difficulty) you are not only more likely to have to miss meetings, but you may struggle to provide the Council with a ‘valid’ reason for your absence – either because you forget to do so or because they do not deem your reasons to be ‘good enough’.

In her recently released Netflix documentary Five Foot Two, Lady Gaga opens up about how her disability fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) affects her daily life. FMS is a chronic long-term condition that causes pain all over the body which can be treated, but cannot be cured. Symptoms of FMS also include fatigue, memory problems and ‘brain fog’. The condition led to Lady Gaga having to postpone her UK tour, something which led to outrage among fans.

What right do her fans have to be annoyed at this? Instead of outrage, we should show solidarity and support with disabled people who are struggling through a world that is not always designed for them.

Having a disability, whether or not it’s one that people can see, means facing up to relentless barriers to success and happiness that able-bodied people simply cannot imagine.

So, next time a disabled person is given an essay extension, or extra time in an exam, please think before saying they are “lucky” or “cheating”. If you have never had to struggle with a disability, visible or otherwise, you are the lucky one.

Opinion pieces are the view of the author and in no way reflect the views of Forge Press.

Right to reply
Kieran Maxwell, President of Sheffield Students’ Union
A committee made up of the SU President, the Chair and the Vice-Chair of council consider whether apologies from councillors are acceptable or not. Cases where councillors haven’t submitted written apologies are always treated with extremely careful consideration, especially if this was because of a memory-related condition like an SpLD. We want to ensure SU Council is accessible and inclusive to all students. A proposal seeking to expand this kind of extra consideration was passed by SU council at the end of last year, and we’re currently exploring how best to implement this so that we can embed accessibility in SU council into our procedure.

I’d be more than happy to meet with the writer, and anyone else, so we can better understand their concerns and listen to any ideas they may have on how to improve accessibility in SU Council.

Susan Bridgeford, Director of Student Support Services at the University of Sheffield
The University of Sheffield fully understands the importance of ensuring its disabled students are completely comfortable and fully integrated into life at the University.

We’re proud of the significant support in place to enable this, such as our Disability and Dyslexia Support Service, which is a friendly and confidential service providing help and advice to enable students to access their studies and university services. Through this, students have access to an excellent support worker service, which has recently received a quality rating of 92 per cent in external audit. This service supports students with mentors, exam scribes, note-takers and other means of support. The Disability and Dyslexia Support Service also aims to work closely with academic departments to ensure that programme developments and initiatives adequately take into account the needs of disabled students. We are always interested in feedback from students so that we can continue to improve the services we are offering.

As part of the University’s commitment to continually improving the support on offer, we have recently launched SAMHS (Student Access to Mental Health Support), a triage service for students with mental health concerns to enable full consideration of needs in a single appointment, and faster access to the appropriate support service. www.sheffield.ac.uk/mental-wellbeing

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