I have an invisible disability. I do not really want to disclose what it is, but I have trouble standing up on public transport for longer than a few minutes. I would like to sit down. Now, the bus/tram/train is full. I’m a young adult, barely out of my teens and I look very healthy. I travel alone and have no other visible signs (including a pass or document) or immediately apparent needs related to my disability.

How can I achieve my goal of acquiring a seat without disclosing the nature of my disability and keeping drama to an absolute minimum?

Note that this question is intentionally phrased generally. An answer should preferably be applicable to many different invisible disabilities or illnesses (mental and physical) and should not include suggestions to take a different mode of transport or travel at a different time.

I personally do not take public transport often and am unlikely to have to ask the same person twice, but answers addressing that possibility are still encouraged over ones who don't. (I usually travel by car, but cars can't go everywhere)

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    Do you have any sort of indicator from the transportation authority? In many jurisdictions, they issue discount cards or other symbols of physical disability. – Catija May 14 at 21:10
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    @Catija I don’t. I asked the question because I suffered a concussion a while back and I encountered a situation where I wanted to sit down. I ended up not asking and fainting after a while. I ended up getting the seat, but maybe that’s not a good way to get it. – Belle-Sophie May 14 at 21:20
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    @Belle-Sophie Ironically, I'm sure there are a lot of people who won't believe you until you involuntarily go unconscious. This is a tough question. It might not be answerable. Could you give us some examples of what you tried? I can't imagine many of us have been in that situation so it's hard to draw up an answer. This might be a case of us trying to figure out what you should do in the situation, which might be off topic for this website. – Clay07g May 14 at 21:23
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    @Clay07g yeah, that’s what I thought (feared). I tried buying a car ;) that’s not an option for everyone though. And certainly not if you get a concussion. I haven’t really been in this situation anymore since this incident. – Belle-Sophie May 14 at 21:25
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    @Catija I did not include the cause on purpose. My concussion is healed so answer specific to concussion will not help me. More general answers will help other people too. I hope that doesn't make it too broad? – Belle-Sophie May 15 at 6:19
up vote 175 down vote accepted

I'm probably going to Hell for this, but what we might need here is a little white lie.

I have an arthritic knee and sometimes this means I end up using a fold up walking stick (available in many pharmacies and in charity shops sometimes). It does mean if I need to shift someone from the notionally reserved special seating on buses I've got visible evidence. Usually it's not an issue.

So maybe grab a cheap fold up walking stick and use it as needed until you're over the problem with the concussion.

And keep in mind that with a concussion a walking stick may be useful anyway as your balance can be a little off.

That might not be the best solution, but how about

I'm sorry, I'm not feeling well, can I please sit down?

Anyone, no matter how young and fit, might not be feeling well on a particular day, with no visible signs. So you wouldn't need to go into any lengthy explanations. And people are usually nice and helpful when you ask nicely.
This is what I usually do after I give blood, at any rate. I am young and healthy enough to routinely donate blood, so I don't look like I might need a seat, but in those instances, I really do. Never had any trouble with it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. @Galastel if you want to edit your answer, the suggested improvements can be found there ;-) – Tinkeringbell May 22 at 19:07

In London, UK, we have "Please Offer Me A Seat" badges and cards: https://tfl.gov.uk/campaign/please-offer-me-a-seat

Once you have one of these badges, the duty of a true English citizen is to stand in the middle of the tube, flaunting the badge and avoiding making any eye contact with anyone. If someone has not offered you a seat within a few seconds, the next step would be to start sighing heavily and tutting. If this doesn't work, then you must be in a carriage full of barbarians, to which the only proper response would be to change carriage and repeat.


Edit - I can't comment in IPS yet, so I will answer the questions below here.

The "netherlands" tag was added after I posted, so this answer was more relevant before - I specified it was about London so as to be clear.

I am unaware as to whether non-verbal communication will work outside London, but the Please Give Me A Seat campaign in London was working well even before it was well known. Transport for London did however promote the scheme through advertising and social media afterwards, so people are very well aware of it now and it has large support from passengers.

I think some of the main reasons that this scheme works are:

  1. The badges are branded by the transport company, so feel "official".

  2. People often feel awkward offering seats as some people get offended (because they "can stand by themselves, thank you very much"), having a visual clue lets them know they can offer a seat without potentially insulting anyone.

  3. The badges give a visual cue that a person may have issues standing without requiring them to specify what their problem is.

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    This comes across as a pretty UK centric answer. Not only is there an active government campaign, which, I can assure, is not the case in many parts of the world, but also the UK polite culture is quite different from the rest of the world. I never knew what a proper queue was until visiting London! – GretchenV May 15 at 11:00
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    I think it's good to have a London-centric answer. My in-laws live in London, so this is useful for me and could be useful to others too. – Belle-Sophie May 15 at 11:37

I think you can give exactly the information you gave in the question, to anyone who is seated:

Excuse me, I have a disability/health issue/problem that makes it difficult/unsafe/unhealthy for me to stand for long periods of the time. Would you mind if I sat down?

If they inquire into the nature of the disability, you can simply but firmly say

I'd prefer not to go into details/discuss the specific nature of my condition, but it makes it so I can't stand for very long.

This is honest, direct, and should avoid drama.

The fundamental thing here is: ASK.

Way too many times I see pregnant or elderly persons just staring at you, probably assuming that the person sitting needs the seat less than the staring person is a huge mistake. There could be an invisible disability, bad knees or something else, but you don't know without asking and it's rude just to assume. The key here is actual communication instead of just staring, implying that you need to get up and allow the staring person to sit.

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    (I downvoted because I don't feel the response "Ask" is valid for any question "How can I request [xyz]". The "How" has not been elaborated upon here.) – Aaron F May 15 at 15:29

I carry a fold-up cane in my backpack, and also a folding cane with a seat (I think in the UK the traditional form of this cane is called a "shooting stick"). Sometimes I need the cane for stability. Sometimes I need the seat-cane to reduce pain by half-way sitting for a minute or two. Either cane works as a kind of signal and legitimator - the cane becomes a visible manifestation of the invisible disability. Unlike some visible manifestations, a folding cane allows you to put it away, in situations in which you don't want to call attention to your condition.

Good luck!

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    I like this type of non-verbal communication :) – Belle-Sophie May 15 at 17:55

I see three goals or your phrasing:

  1. Communicate that you have a health problem

  2. Disclose as little as possible

  3. Present your request as an opportunity for some to do a good deed, rather than an obligation

There is some conflict between the first two, but if you're going to be asking for favors from other people, it's reasonable to share some information. My suggested phrasing:

I have a health condition that makes standing difficult. Would you be willing to give up you seat for me?

On a really crowded train last year I had been standing for about 20 minutes when I suddenly felt really ill, like I was about to be sick. I turned to the person next to me and said "sorry, I'm suddenly feeling really sick can I grab that seat" and they immediately moved.

After a minute or two I felt better. I would have offered to swap back but the train was just coming into the station so I just said thank you.

My point is that you don't need to be specific. Just be polite and say "I'm sorry - I'm recovering from an injury/disabled/unwell and need to sit, can I get that seat please".

A bigger potential problem actually comes if you are sitting and someone with a visible reason for the seat asks you to give it up. That's a rare circumstance but I've seen people with invisible disabilities get harassed for using disabled facilities so it can happen. In that case having some form of "proof" such as a disabled badge can be very helpful.

A lot of public transport has specific seats set aside for priority passengers, at least in the uk, and also offer ways to show your need. For example: https://www.southernrailway.com/travel-information/travel-help/priority-seat-card

Even when not traveling on that specific train company just having the card helps you show that you have a genuine need and are not just blagging it. Try looking for similar schemes for transport companies in your location.

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    I suspect that "Sorry, I'm suddenly feeling really sick" was interpreted as "Sorry, I'm about to be sick all over you unless you move", even if it wasn't meant that way. – Andrew Leach May 17 at 7:50

Instead of asking random strangers on the internet, ask your local transport authority.

Usually, it's stated in terms and conditions of every transport service what facilities are available to disabled persons and under what conditions they can use them. Those rules are often strictly local, as in Michal's answer, therefore local source is better than a global one.

Rules like those are made exactly to help you. Other people are expecting you to act according to those rules and know from them how to do their part. You can think about guidelines, protocols, rules and laws as IPS that had been agreed upon and codified. Trying to circumvent that is simply asking for trouble and exactly the lengthy discussions you're trying to avoid.

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    This assumes that OP is the kind of person who takes the full force of law instead of trying to resort to soft skills... the example sentence you gave sounds absurdly aggressive to me, in this context. The last thing OP wants is probably to offend the seated person simply through her manners. – AnoE May 15 at 12:39
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    It isn't clear from your answer how the OP is to know whether the person sitting in the reserved seat doesn't also have the full weight of the law backing their claim. How should she tackle that aspect and what should she do if the 'frail and elderly' seats are already fully occupied by frail or elderly people? – Spagirl May 15 at 13:00
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    You haven’t addressed what an eligible person should do if the designated seats are already occupied by eligible people – Spagirl May 15 at 13:48
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    @Agent_L, I don't understand what's aggressive in "Excuse me, this seat is for me". - that's fine with me, we are allowed to disagree. I am not saying that this is agressive, I am saying that it sounds absurdly aggressive to me. Maybe a language issue. Also, I see the law as something which applies after common courtesy and friendliness have failed. Treat this as my opinion, simply. – AnoE May 15 at 13:59
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    "Excuse me, this seat is for me" is wrong on a conceptual level. OP does not know that the seat isn't also for those sitting there who might have the exact same invisible disability. – Andrea Lazzarotto May 15 at 15:24

protected by Tinkeringbell May 22 at 9:50

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