Working with Children with Hidden Disabilities
What are hidden disabilities?
At a basic level a hidden disability is an impairment or difficulty a person has that is not apparent to others. This may apply to visual impairments, mental impairments, learning difficulties, dexterity difficulty or those who are hard of hearing. The list is enormous! Hidden disabilities includes:
Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Autism, Asperger’s, Dyscalculia, ADHD, Epilepsy, Diabetes, Chronic fatigue, Heart conditions…. The list goes on!
There are many issues around Hidden disabilities that most people simply do not consider. Most people make a visual assessment of one another and make decisions about them. If a disability is hidden or not apparent most people do not make allowances for it, do not take it seriously or worse still denies the person has a problem at all.
I myself am Dyslexic, the issue was ignored by teachers who despite knowing of Dyslexia didn’t believe it was real, even today there are teachers who have this view, I have encountered it with my own son and had to fight to get him assessed. Like me he was being categorized as ‘lazy’, ‘not as bright as you think’ or a ‘naughty child’ and punished rather than helped. My parents were told the same things about me. After two years of being diagnosed and getting the help he needed my son went from the lowest sets to the top sets, just as I did, even now he hears from teachers that they ‘don’t believe in Dyslexia’. Attitudes have not changed towards hidden disabilities and people still rely on their own judgement. This applies to all Hidden disabilities, my own experiences with Dyslexia are just a typical example.
People believe that because a disability is hidden it is seen not to exist and that some form of proof is needed. For a child this leads to their needs being ignored and help that is needed not being given. I wonder if the same people would try to treat a wheelchair user differently and tell them that they did not believe in their condition?
Everyone is the product of their upbringing and experiences; our views of ourselves are a part of this. A positive self-image is essential to a developing person yet for children who are marginalized due to a disability this self-image is often very negative.
Childhood is such an important time, a child needs to be provided with the support and care they need to develop to their potential. Having to cope with a disability adds further stresses and difficulties at an already difficult time. It is all about the messages given to the child and the help they receive, but what if the child has difficulties and is given no support?
Here are some of the effects of a Hidden disability on a child:
Bullying, Isolation, Withdrawal, Distress, Frustration, Anger, Impact upon self-identity, Set apart from peers, Unhappiness / depression, Self-harm, Poor academic results
Often children and adults choose to hide a disability due to the social stigma or discrimination of others. This prevents a child from gaining the help they need. I know of one child whose mother shouted at a teacher (with her son standing next to her) ‘I don’t want a child with disabilities’ when asked if she would consent to an assessment.
What do professional’s need to do?
- Be aware of exactly what the child’s needs ar
- Know about the child’s specific difficulties, each child is hugely different even with the same condition
- Be aware of how the child reacts to situations / changes
- Do not punish the child for having a condition, behaviours are often for a reason
- Adapt the child’s daily routines, for example if the child struggles socially do not put the child in the playground on breaks, perhaps make the library available to them for example
- Make all / new staff members aware of the child’s needs
- Speak to the child regularly and adapt the plan if needs change
- Review the plan regularly
We can reduce these down to:
A hidden disability is every bit as ‘real’ for the suffer as any other form of disability yet when a disability is hidden there are additional factors. There is a very real need to make everyone more aware of the particular challenges around hidden disabilities, particularly in both the work place but more so in schools and in the education system generally. If educators become more aware of the impact of hidden disabilities and more attuned to providing the appropriate support and guidance needed, children will be more able to reach their potential and form a positive view of themselves and allow them to move on to more fulfilled and successful lives.
Issues around hidden disabilities are lifelong affecting all aspects of people’s lives. Hidden disabilities have been linked to teenage suicide rates, hidden disabilities limit people’s life chances partly as people often try to conceal them and partly out of other’s judgements of them as stupid or lazy.
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