People with invisible disabilities frequently experience being challenged over their impairment or suffer from a lack of understanding, both of which can affect their mental health, research has suggested.
A study by Bupa and the charity Scope has concluded that more than two-thirds (71%) of people with less visible impairments and conditions have been challenged about them in the past year.
The survey of 382 disabled people found 63% of those with less visible conditions reported this as having a negative effect on their mental health.
The vast majority (83%) of people with less visible conditions and impairments regularly experienced a lack of understanding or negative attitudes when in public, with this also affecting their mental health.
In recent years the wearing of sunflower lanyard has become an indicator that someone has an invisible disability, but awareness of this remains relatively low.
Experiences reported by those surveyed included being challenged on whether they were disabled or the nature of their disability, such as while travelling, shopping, or at an event (71%).
Most commonly, this was when using an accessible toilet (37% in the past year), priority seating on public transport (32%) or accessible parking for Blue Badge holders (25%).
Three-quarters had also experienced insensitive comments about their disability (76%), while 68% had been told “you don’t look disabled” in the past year.
The majority of those with less visible conditions or impairments said these experiences had negatively affected their mental health, with 65% experiencing heightened anxiety, and 62% saying their self-esteem had taken a hit.
More than a fifth (22%) of people with a less visible condition or impairment said such bad experiences meant they were more likely to stay in rather than go out.
Compounding this, two-thirds (66%) had struggled to get help when needed in public at some point in the past year, meaning that those with less visible conditions or impairments often become more reluctant to use services available for disabled people.
Just shy of two-thirds (64%) said they were less likely to ask for help or support when needed, and 41% have avoided using accessible facilities.
Carlos Jaureguizar, chief executive for Bupa Global & UK, said: “Many misconceptions still exist around disability, despite ongoing progress. The experiences of people with less visible conditions highlighted by our research are concerning, particularly considering the impact on mental health.”
Mark Hodgkinson, chief executive at Scope, added: “One in five of us is disabled, but it’s not always obvious as many people have impairments and conditions that are not visible. At Scope, we often hear from disabled people who experience negative attitudes, social isolation and a lack of understanding.
“Negative attitudes and behaviours hold disabled people back in all areas of life – and prevent many from socialising, looking for employment, starting education and training or using public transport,” he added.