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Hidden disabilities

In the UK, one in five people have a disability. 80% of those people have a hidden disability.

What is a hidden disability?

A hidden disability is a disability that may not visible or immediately obvious when looking or talking to someone but can have a significant impact on a person’s life.

'Hidden disabilities' is an umbrella term that captures a spectrum of disabilities, and can include:

  • Sensory disabilities
  • Mental health conditions
  • Specific learning differences
  • Autism,
  • Long-term and physical health conditions

This is, however, not an exhaustive list.

These conditions can have significant impact on an individual’s day-to-day life and without visible signs or evidence of a disability it can often be difficult for others to be aware or acknowledge the difficulties being experienced.

It can also be embarrassing for someone with a hidden disability to have to disclose their condition - particularly if being challenged - in order to access facilities.

The Sunflower Scheme at St Mary’s

We are proud to support the Sunflower Scheme for individuals who have hidden disabilities. Wearing the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a discreet way of letting people know that a person has a hidden disability.

The scheme has gained international recognition and is becoming increasingly adopted by large organisations, such as the NHS, international airports, many supermarkets and growing numbers of other businesses and organisations. 

Person wearing a Sunflower lanyardIf you wear the Sunflower (available as wristbands, lanyards and pin badges), it indicates to those around you that you may need additional support. 

In relation to the current Coronavirus outbreak, it may also mean the wearer is exempt from wearing a face covering owing to their disability. 

Other reasons people may wish to wear a sunflower product to indicate a hidden disability:

  • Support around communication: indication that a wearer may need you to lower your face mask when communicating or using an alternative to face coverings to aid lip-reading.
  • Requiring additional time: for example when locating items, moving around campus or additional time processing instructions
  • Facility access: requiring accessible toilet access or use of lifts

This is not an exhaustive list, but shows some of the ways that individuals may need support.

How can I show my support for those with hidden disabilities?

Share stories and resources

If you are a sunflower wearer feel free to share stories of how you use the products with or share photos of you using the products. If you have resources, ideas, pieces you would like us to include on our resource page please send to

Use language carefully and be considerate

Avoid using terms inappropriately that can be associated with a person’s identity or the challenges they face as a result of their disability.


Consider joining the Disabled Student’s Network as an ally or encouraging others too.


Follow @smustudentservices on Instagram and @smuwellbeing on Twitter. We post helpful hints and tips which may be useful for you or others regarding hidden disabilities.


Watch the videos regarding the Sunflower Scheme! Read books, watch films and listen to podcasts regarding hidden disabilities.


Individuals who have hidden disabilities are their own experts. Everyone is different so their disability may impact them differently compared to others. Ask how you can help and do not make assumptions or judgements without knowing the full circumstance.

What can I do to help?

Feel free to ask individuals how you can help!


If you are organising an even, find out about hosting it in an accessible and inclusive way.

Respect privacy

Do not ask someone what their disability is if it is not appropriate to do so.