Not all disabled students identify as disabled

Acquiring a disability whilst at university can mean big, sometimes unexpected, changes for a student, and there may be a lot to process and come to terms with. As a final year student, myself, I experienced a life-changing stroke which partially paralysed my left-hand side.  The stroke changed my career plans and my friendship groups on top of my physical abilities. It also took me a long time to identify myself as disabled and access the support I needed.

For those who aren’t born with a disability, the disability they acquire can be hidden or visible. Disability can be caused by an accident, sudden illness, or an illness which has worsened over time. A disability may also be acquired through a formal diagnosis. Because of this, it’s important to note, it is not always the case that an acquired disability is unexpected, and some students may welcome a diagnosis and being able to finally access the support they need.

How can we support students who may face barriers related to disability, but don’t perceive themselves as disabled?

  • Reflect the language they are using.
  • Try not to assume how they feel or what might be needed.
  • Ask permission to share information about the equality act, support available and the legal definition of disability.
  • Work with the students to establish barriers they may face during recruitment or whilst in employment.
  • Be familiar with disability resources available and share them with permission from the student.

This blog post provides more examples of how you can support students with acquired disability.

If a student does not perceive themselves as being disabled, they may choose not to share information with an employer about their condition or diagnosis. In my case I referred to myself as ‘recovering’ to the first employers I approached.

I’m now aware that there can be legal implications about not identifying as disabled, particularly when it comes to employment. Disability Rights UK say the main benefit of telling an employer is that it gives you more protection under the Equality Act if you have a dispute at work. If an employer can show they didn’t know you were disabled, you might have less of a case for discrimination. There are other benefits to telling an employer too such as receiving adjustments to the workplace or recruitment.

It’s important to remember though, that disabled candidates and employees do have a right to privacy and only need to share the information relevant to them being able to receive the adjustments they need to fulfil the duties of the role.

Further information on talking confidently to an employer about an acquired disability

Becki Cobb, AGCAS Disability Task Group, University of Lincoln

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