How to Support Employees with Invisible Disabilities

In Blog, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by Rachel Murray

According to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, only 21% of employees with disabilities disclose to human resources that they have one, and more than a third of survey respondents with disabilities say they’ve experienced negative bias. So it makes sense that people will be less likely to disclose their disability if it’s not readily apparent. But by doing this, your company could be losing out on some benefits, which we’ll get to below. But before we do, let’s be clear on what an invisible disability is.

Often when many of us think of someone with a disability, we may think of someone in a wheelchair, for example. The definition of someone with a disability is much broader than that, however. Disability includes not only obvious physical disabilities, but non-obvious physical disabilities and cognitive and psychological disabilities as well. It’s important to recognize that it may not be apparent at all that someone has a disability. Before we go any further, let’s define the legal definition according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Amendments Act (ADAAA). A disability is:

  1. a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning;
  2. a record of such an impairment, such as an illness that is in remission; or
  3. being regarded as having such an impairment even if it is not present.

Some examples of invisible disabilities include, but definitely aren’t limited to:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Epilepsy
  • Hearing loss
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental illness
  • Sleep disorders

For a more complete list of disabilities, you can refer to this incredible resource provided by the Job Accommodation Network.

Many of these invisible disabilities can have a significant impact on how a person shows up at work. And while the expectation is that they should still be able to perform their job duties, as an employer, it’s important to consider ways to support them, and not just for legal and compliance reasons.

By openly supporting those with disabilities, invisible or not, much as you might when you support anyone different from the majority group, you will be able to gain insight on how to better support them. This can be valuable not only from an inclusivity standpoint, but can also help your business bottom line. If your organization is set up to exclude (even unintentionally) a large percentage of the population, you are not effectively reaching your target market and customer. Remember, disability is a group that many people move in and out of over time. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 adults in America have a disability of some sort, and all of us may experience disability at some point in our lives.  Much like we’ve seen examples of bias appear in gender and race when it comes to the use of apps, tools, and websites, the same can very much hold true for those who have disabilities. By creating space for open conversations with someone with a different experience, your company benefits from that knowledge and may be able to provide better services or products to their customers.

Many organizations these days are looking for ways to support a more inclusive culture internally. One way to do so is to be upfront about your commitment to accessibility, and by providing accommodations (especially those that go beyond the legal minimum requirements) for your employees. Employees with invisible disabilities may be cautious about disclosing, because they fear prejudice or discrimination. By creating and supporting an open environment where people can speak freely about their experiences, others within your company will be able to gain greater empathy by learning from each other, in addition to relieving some of that psychological burden.

So, how can we be better at supporting our employees with invisible disabilities, whether they’ve told you or not?

  1. Create a supportive environment that lets people know that they won’t be discriminated against for revealing their disability. Ways to signal this is for leadership to articulate clearly that discrimination of any kind isn’t tolerated, providing examples of the types of discrimination beyond the visible.
  2. If someone does let you know that they have a disability, work with them to create a practical accommodation plan, and be clear that this isn’t simply about legal compliance, but ensuring that they are truly able to do their job and are supported in every reasonable way possible.
  3. Provide training so that people can become more aware of and attuned to their biases and ensure that the training offers practical ways to mitigate that bias.
  4. Consider offering stretch opportunities, if it makes sense, to those who are public about their disability. This can send a clear message that you are supporting them and they’re absolutely able to perform their job and thensome.
  5. Consider suggesting an employee resource group if there are others who would like to be supported in a more formal way at the company.
  6. If you have a diversity page on your website, or any marketing around diversity, make sure to include disability as part of that conversation– and don’t just default to a picture of someone in a wheelchair!

There are loads of other resources for you to refer to when it comes to supporting employees with disabilities, both visible and invisible, and we encourage you to have  look at them here:

Do you have any experiences with invisible disabilities? Any thoughts to add to this post? As always, we’d love to hear from you!

Photo credit: iStockPhoto