Unseen disabilities and long-term health conditions

Many types of disability or impairment are unseen as their effects are not immediately apparent. Some studies show that up to 70% of disabled people have impairments or health conditions, which can be classed as unseen. This page provides a more general overview.

We have specific guidance on support for students who have specific learning difficulties, mental health conditions, and autism spectrum conditions.

Key support actions

  • Keep in touch with the student, and, in general, accept their assessment of their health on a given day
  • Give clear guidance regarding essential tasks and support with managing workload
  • Keep timings of learning activities consistent
  • Allow breaks for symptom management, such as eating or medication
  • Understand that the student may feel embarrassment about discussing the detail of these conditions

What are unseen disabilities and long-term health conditions?

Unseen impairments and long-term health conditions cover a wide range of diagnoses including cystic fibrosis, diabetes, pain conditions, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)/ chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and Crohn’s disease. Their effects may include fatigue, pain, general ill heath, and a need for more frequent access to food or bathroom facilities.

How do unseen disabilities and long-term health conditions impact on study?

The impact of an unseen impairment or long-term health condition will vary from individual to individual and will depend upon a range of factors, including course choice, time since diagnosis, and support available.

Often, these conditions can fluctuate – a student may be well one day and feeling very unwell the next because of a sudden ‘flare-up’ in their condition.

Students with unseen impairments and/or long-term health conditions may need support in the following areas:

  • Managing fatigue and energy levels
  • Breaks for symptom management
  • Sitting or standing for extended periods
  • Managing exposure to environmental triggers
  • Poor concentration

Supporting and teaching students with illnesses and unseen disabilities

Many principles of inclusive teaching are beneficial for students with unseen impairments and long-term health conditions. Here are some particular examples:

  • Ensure information is shared regarding the student’s difficulties according to best practice, in particular in relation to health and safety
  • Keep timetables consistent to assist the student with accessing any support in place, and where possible schedule regular breaks
  • Provide handouts in advance so the student can focus well during the lecture
  • Reserve seating in lectures for example, if ground floor seating is required
  • Ensure any specialist seating required is available
  • Ensure thorough risk assessments are completed regarding issues of medication, allergy or sensitivity

Reasonable adjustments

  • Arrangements to provide cover if the student is too unwell to attend for example, a recording device and supportive attendance monitoring
  • Consider proximity to bathrooms and student’s accommodation when choosing venues for supervisions
  • Where possible, schedule supervisions around any disability or illness-related appointment the student may have
  • Rest breaks during any lengthy learning activity, such as practical work or exams
  • Human support to assist with practical work to mitigate fatigue
  • Ability to accommodate support for short periods at short notice

The Equality Act (2010)

If a student has been living with an illness or unseen impairment for more than six months, or if the effect is likely to be lifelong, then they will automatically meet the definition of a disabled person under the Equality Act (2010). In such cases, there will be a legal obligation for the University to make reasonable adjustments and not treat the individual less favourably for reasons relating to their impairment.