How to Support Employees with Invisible Disabilities

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

What is an invisible disability?

Often when many of us think of someone with a disability, we typically think of someone with a clearly visible impairment such as being in a wheelchair or needing other ambulatory devices for assistance. However, the definition of someone with a disability is much broader. Disability not only includes obvious physical disabilities but non-obvious physical, cognitive, and psychological disabilities as well. It’s important to recognize that it may not be at all apparent that someone has a disability. 

Before we go any further, let’s review the legal definition according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Amendments Act (ADAAA). A disability is:

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

That last bullet is important as we consider people with invisible disabilities, defined by the Invisible Disabilities Association as a physical, mental, or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities. 

Some examples of invisible disabilities include (but are not 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.)

How can it impact work?

Many of these invisible disabilities can have a significant impact on how a person shows up at work. 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, but in additional ways that build positive workplace culture.

According to a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, only 24% of employees with disabilities disclose to human resources that they have one, with less than a quarter of respondents reporting that they feel as though the culture at their workplace is one that is fully committed to ensuring their growth and success. So it makes sense that people may be less likely to disclose their disability if it’s not readily apparent or may be more likely to seek out alternative employment with companies that openly support people with disabilities. As a result, your company could be losing out on such benefits of employee diversity as increased sales and revenue, employee retention and engagement, and overall innovation.

Benefits for employers

By openly supporting those with disabilities, just as you might when you support anyone different from the majority group, you begin to reshape the culture of the work environment for all employees. A recent study by Accenture found that employees that feel safe to disclose their disability at work are 30% more engaged than those that don’t. This can be valuable not only from an inclusivity standpoint, but can also help your business bottom line. Companies that focus on disability engagement have seen sales growth 2.9 times faster than their peers. Additionally, if your organization is set up to exclude (even unintentionally) such a large percentage of the population, then you are not effectively reaching your target market and customer. 

(It’s also important to consider that disability is a group that many people move in and out of over time. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 adults in America have a disability of some sort, and many of us may experience disability at some point in our lives.) 

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 upper management and those in positions of leadership. This can also relieve some of the psychological burden that people with invisible disabilities often carry in silence. 

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. 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!

How can I learn more?

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!