Des conseils de carrière
Hidden in plain sight
How you can help a student
with a hidden disability
by Christine Nieder and Mahadeo Sukhai
magine 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
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 disability services office.
What is a hidden or invisible disability?
It could be a mental health condition (such as
depression or anxiety disorder), a learning dis-
ability, 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 atten-
tion deficit hyperactivity disorder may be con-
People often fear what they do not under-
stand, so many students with hidden disabilities
are cautious about whom to trust. They know
they might be treated differently once their dis-
ability 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.
Ms. Nieder is a recent
graduate of Simon Fraser
University's MEd program in
and works as an assistive
Dr. Sukhai is a research fellow
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
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
The more equipped faculty are to support
students with hidden disabilities, the more suc-
cessful these individuals can ultimately become
in the postsecondary system and beyond.
“Many students with
hidden disabilities are
cautious about whom
Cet article est également
disponible en français
sur notre site web,
in cancer diagnostics at the
Princess Margaret Cancer
Centre in Toronto. Both are
active volunteers with the
Association of Disabled