Travelling with an Invisible Disability

With the introduction of TFL’s ‘Please give me a seat’ campaign,  can something as simple as a badge really help those with invisible disabilities navigate public transport with greater ease?

Travelling with an Invisible Disability

When you think of comfort or ease, you rarely think of British Public Transport. Trains late or cancelled, stations which are inaccessible or jammed, and carriages packed so full with people it’s hard to remember where the parameters of your own body end. And getting a seat in rush hour is more fanciful than finding a unicorn roaming in Battersea Park.

For someone with an invisible disability, this universal discomfort is multiplied not only by their own condition(s), but the insensitivity and misconceptions of others.

‘Invisible disability’ is an umbrella term to describe disabilities, chronic illnesses and conditions which are not visibly conspicuous.  Examples of invisible disabilities include: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Cerebral palsy, Crohn’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Endometriosis and Rheumatoid arthritis. It is a broad term for conditions which present differently in each individual, and in some these may be more visibly pronounced.  

However, because they often have few physical indicators, people with invisible disabilities regularly face discrimination, insensitive questioning and judgmental looks when using accessible resources.  

Transport for London’s ‘Please offer me a seat’ campaign - modelled off the ‘Baby on Board’ badges, designed to show that a pregnant person may need a seat - encourages ‘disabled people and those with invisible impairments, conditions or illnesses’, to apply for a free badge and card in order to make their need for a seat visible to other passengers.

If a badge requesting a seat on public transport is necessary for people to stand for pregnant women - whose condition is largely visible - a badge for those whose conditions and disabilities are otherwise indiscernible to the eye is perhaps even more vital.

There are a myriad of reasons someone might need to sit down: it is not for anyone external to judge or question their reason. Hopefully, increased usage and awareness of these blue badges will normalize the fact that some people are dealing with conditions and illnesses which make standing uncomfortable or impossible, and that a disability doesn’t have to be outwardly visible for it to be present.

A badge itself isn’t going to remove the stigma around disabilities which are not immediately or otherwise noticeable to strangers. Indeed, there is the possibility that showing a badge to someone sat down might prompt that person to ask for ‘proof’ or evidence of the badge-holder’s need.

While the system still relies on the compassion and empathy of other passengers to give up their seat for a badge/card holder, we shouldn’t require others to publicly profess their personal difficulties in order to have empathy. You do not know what pain another person is dealing with that day - and it is not for anyone else to guess, or to judge.

Most people would not like to assume about strangers and make someone feel awkward by offering their seat for a reason which turns out to be wrong. A self-selecting badge system removes some of this ambiguity, and hopefully, some of the unwarranted questioning.

While accessibility on public transport has improved, there are still many issues people regularly face when travelling. There is no single underground tube line which is fully step-free: all have vast sections of stations which are wholly inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, leaving them to rely on trains or taxis. Even with buses, it’s not unheard of that wheelchair users have been asked wait for another bus if there is already a buggy on board. Transport infrastructure and stations need to be drastically and rapidly refurbished to enable travel to not only be possible, but comfortable and dignified for everyone.

While TFL are making improvements, with priority seating and wheelchair spaces, accessibility guides which include tube maps which are audio-described, in large print, and in black-and-white, this support needs to be extended across the country.  

However, TFL’s ‘Please offer me a seat’ campaign is a small but positive step in the right direction in making those with additional needs heard, and visible beyond their disability.

If you are able to stand and are approached by someone who asks for the seat, don’t question their motivations - whether they are wearing a badge, show you a card, or simply ask. They do not need to prove their pain to you.

If you have an invisible disability which makes standing on transport difficult, consider applying for a TFL badge here.


Rebecca Took

Rebecca Took Local Reporter

Midlands-based trainee journalist and writer |

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 18 July 2018, 10:30 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    I can relate to this. For someone with autism, the tube can be very overwhelming - the worry of getting lost, missing a train mixed with sensory overloads can raise stress levels very quickly. Though I'm not so sure what can be done about that...

  • Mary Strickson

    On 30 July 2018, 01:25 Mary Strickson Contributor commented:

    I also definitely relate to this. Very good article. I have invisible disabilities and find it very difficult on public transport without a seat. For me it’s not about being in pain or physically unable to stand but more about the fact that if you are standing on public transport you can end up in a crowd or lacking space or being pressed against other people and that’s what I find difficult. I find the tube too difficult now tbh.

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