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Career Advice

How you can help a student with a hidden disability

They are often hidden in plain sight.


Imagine you are at the front of your classroom, waiting for this term’s newest batch of students to settle themselves in. You scan the faces of each one, wondering what this cohort will be like.

Now, consider that you were one of those students, in a lecture hall with 100 other students, knowing that you had a hidden or invisible disability. Imagine the anxiety you might feel as one of the 80,000 or so postsecondary students in Canada in this position.

You might wonder whether you should disclose the disability to your classmates or to your professor. And if you did, would you be treated differently? Imagine the questions you’d get if you did make the decision to tell them about it: what is a hidden disability? How should we act with you? What should I do as your professor?

Approximately six percent of students in colleges and universities disclose that they have a disability, yet 16 percent of the general population is estimated to have at least one disability. About two-thirds of people with disabilities have hidden disabilities. Extrapolating from all this, at least 10 students in your class of 100 are likely to have a hidden disability, and four of them are probably registered with your campus’s disabi-lity services office.

What is a hidden or invisible disability?

It could be a mental health condition (such as depression or anxiety disorder), a learning disability, a chronic health issue (diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome), or a sensory or mobility impairment that is not obvious.

As a faculty or staff member, you should know if you have students with disabilities in your class so that you can better assist them with their learning. So why might one hesitate to disclose their disability?

First, students are under no legal obligation to tell you they have a disability. While staff members working in the disability services office often encourage disclosure, students with disabilities may not feel comfortable enough to tell you, or might perceive that they would be discriminated against if they do.

Second, there is, unfortunately, a widespread misunderstanding and societal stigma attached to the word “disability.” Learning and mental health disabilities, especially, are even more stigmatized than physical disabilities and can carry with them unfair labels. For example, a person with dyslexia may be labelled “slow” in elementary school, and a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be considered “disruptive.”

People often fear what they do not understand, so many students with hidden disabilities are cautious about whom to trust. They know they might be treated differently once their disability is out in the open.

Finally, some students may not even realize that they have a disability as it hasn’t been diagnosed properly or at all, or they may not think of themselves as disabled and therefore are unaware that they can ask for assistance.

How to work with someone with a hidden disability

First, you need to be open and give opportunities for students to approach you for a private conversation so they can share their experiences and concerns.

Second, you should respect that they have chosen to disclose to you and not necessarily to their peers, so be discreet about accommodations and requests. If you have questions that come up, approach them privately.

Most importantly, use the disability services office and other relevant departments at your institution for assistance – but remember: the student may not have disclosed the disability to these agencies. While you can encourage the student to do so, you cannot require it. Find out what resources the offices have to assist you in working with the student, such as workshops, technology aids and publications.

The types of accommodations can vary from student to student; don’t put all students in the same mould. Some may need extra time on exams, others may need a note-taker during class or a quieter setting to write exams. Others require an electronic format for textbooks or assistive devices, or they may choose to record lectures in audio format. Whenever possible, work with the disability services office and the student to ensure the most appropriate course of action.

The more equipped faculty are to support students with hidden disabilities, the more successful these individuals can ultimately become in the postsecondary system and beyond.

Ms. Nieder is a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University’s MEd program in postsecondary leadership and works as an assistive technology specialist. Dr. Sukhai is a research fellow in cancer diagnostics at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Both are active volunteers with the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS).

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