Issue date
07 Dec 2015

Of the millions of disabled people living in Britain today, only a very small percentage use wheelchairs, or assistance dogs, or are otherwise identified by visible evidence of impairment. But everywhere, from supermarket car parks to public transport to workplaces, people believe that "real" disability can be seen and that anyone who is not visibly impaired is not really disabled. Time and again the words "you don't look disabled" are used to show disbelief – and at the same time, to challenge an individual's right to "reasonable adjustment", often associated with a view that the disabled person is wrongly gaining an unfair advantage.

One consequence is that many people who are entitled to legal protection against discrimination and to "reasonable adjustments" are discouraged from coming forward to seek such adjustments from the employer. Often, it can be disabled people themselves who do not recognise that a condition they have, that means they need support or adjustments to enable them to function the same as their colleagues, may count as a disability in the law. Sometimes, especially with mental health conditions, those affected are afraid that the stigma associated with mental health means they would lose their job and have great difficulty finding another. Sadly, all too often this is still the case, but unions can – and often do – make a major difference.

Even among those aware that disabled people are protected against discrimination and that disability covers far more people than those with visible impairments, there are many who misunderstand the fundamental principle of disability discrimination law that disabled people may need to be treated more favourably in order to overcome the disadvantages they already face and to arrive at an equal outcome.

The consequences of the widespread stereotyping of disabled people and common misunderstanding of the law are serious. They mean that disabled people have to confront yet another barrier to their participation in society, including at work, if they have to explain every single time that they are in fact disabled, and that they are entitled to the adjustments required to enable their participation. They may be deterred from asserting their rights, and attempt to conceal the effects of an impairment in order to "fit in". Sometimes this will cause serious consequences for their own health as failure to act promptly may make a mental health crisis (for example) much worse.

Meanwhile, at a national level, government messages reinforced by sections of the popular press that people claiming benefits are defrauding decent hard-working taxpayers reinforce another sadly popular stereotype, that there are two types of disabled people: those who "deserve" to be supported in helpless dependence (through charity, rather than the support that would enable them live independently), or like injured war veterans; but everyone else is a fraud. This accusation is more likely to be thrown at anyone who is disabled but does not show visible evidence of it, leaving them even more exposed to the risk of abuse or worse.

Trade unions reject these stereotypes as both false and oppressive.