A qualitative study to explore the impact of having a hidden physical impairment whilst attending university

  • Grace Owen
Keywords: hidden physical impairment, disability, social life, academic life, judgment


The term 'hidden impairments' means that you cannot tell that someone has a condition from their outward appearance. Hidden impairments are becoming more acknowledged and openly discussed in society. There is growing awareness that increased understanding is essential due to many individuals not wanting to disclose their invisible disabilities for fear of stigma. Students with hidden impairments have been found to experience barriers related to negative social attitudes and a generalised approach to disability. The aim of this research was to explore the impact that having a hidden physical impairment has on a student’s experiences during their time at university. The aim was explored by gaining an understanding of student’s academic and social life, how students feel about using accessible facilities and how they feel they are perceived by others. A small-scale qualitative study was undertaken using semi-structured interviews to explore participants’ university experiences when having a hidden physical impairment. There were five participants, all female, of varying age, with a variety of impairments. Two lived with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, one with hypermobility, one with chronic pain, and one with epilepsy.  The findings show students’ academic life can be affected due to being absent as a result of their impairment, especially when universities do not provide the appropriate means to catch up. However, students do not always disclose their impairment to the university due to reasons such as embarrassment, instead, choosing to confide in a trusted staff member. Students’ social life can be affected due to their impairment including causing them difficulties consuming alcohol. Being unable to drink alcohol can cause students to feel as though they are left out or missing out on the social life at university. Students also experience negative social attitudes when using accessible facilities both at university and in everyday life. The study has shown that having a hidden physical impairment can adversely affect a student’s experience at university and, in order to achieve academically, further awareness and understanding of hidden impairments both socially and institutionally is needed.