When most people think of a disability, the image of a wheelchair or prosthetic comes to mind. Yet, for those with an invisible disability, the mental image is often less kind and many people tend not to disclose their disability for fear of stigma or discrimination. However, some employers are discovering that the key to successfully integrating workers with invisible disabilities lies in meeting employees where they are – which means being willing to adapt workplaces, workspaces and processes to accommodate workers with differing needs and workstyles.
What is an invisible disability?
Generally, a disability or impairment that is not visible to the eye is an “invisible disability.” For example, persons suffering from depression, anxiety, Lyme disease, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or lupus can experience hindrances, pain, or physical limitations that are not readily perceived by those around them. A 2011 Canadian survey revealed that 88% of people with invisible disabilities had a negative view of disclosing their disability (Holland, 2017), primarily due to fear of reprisal from their employer.
Why are employers becoming more accepting of employees with invisible disabilities?
While employers can gain from a workforce that includes diverse cultures, backgrounds or gender, there is an increasing willingness to accommodate invisible disabilities in exchange for valuable employee contributions. Some employers have discovered that people with ASD, or “non-neurotypical” people, also bring their own strengths including attention to detail, innovation, value, creativity and loyalty. In other instances, employees who have been open and transparent about their needed accommodations have found that their employers have willingly provided necessary adjustments – gaining back that employee’s long-term commitment and loyalty.
What kinds of accommodations are required by law?
Legislation and the Ontario Human Rights Commission have long expected employers to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace; but the fact that employers are less familiar with invisible disabilities sometimes means they are reluctant to employ persons with such disabilities.
Employers can successfully engage employees with specific needs by implementing some basic strategies:
- First, it is imperative that the employer know the individual, their needs and what, if applicable, triggersreactions or discomfort. For example, if sound causes overstimulation for them, the employee maysimply need to wear headphones when working around others or in areas with disturbing noises, orhave a soundproofing divider installed.
- Flickering monitors are another trigger for people with vision problems or who suffer from migraines,so adjusting lighting or screen brightness can help that person stay productive.
- Another strategy is to consider flexible working hours and locations; employees who may be experiencingpain from something like Lyme disease can adjust their work hours or even work from home where they mayhave devices or access to equipment throughout the day.
What is most critical, however, is that employers take the time to get to know their employees and be willing to meet them where they are, working together with their employees to develop accommodations that will work best for them. This practice engages the employee, giving them a voice in their working conditions that also demonstrates that their employer cares.
Changing internal processes
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for employers can be revisiting internal processes such as hiring practices, training and career development. As persons with invisible disabilities may be reluctant to disclose their disability, they may not even be able to get past a company’s interview screening. Expecting standardized practices to work for those who struggle in a standardized world, is simply not going to open the door to workers with needs that don’t fit the “cookie cutter.”
Once they have hired someone who needs accommodations, employers will also want to spend some time providing workplace education and training to help all employees understand various disabilities, so that relationships can flourish and resentment does not develop. Without understanding why a colleague wears headphones, arrives and works late, and has a private cubicle, or why they never make contact or require frequent breaks, other team members may develop jealousy or have less-trusting relationships with that colleague. Hence, having a plan to train all employees can go a long way in fostering a supportive work environment.
Another way to help employees with invisible disabilities integrate well is to discuss their future with the organization, to provide some reassurance that the employer has confidence in their ability and is willing to support their career development. Put in some time up-front to establish, monitor and revisit a growth and career plan to support these employees with future planning, skill development and goal-setting.
As most of us tend to believe what we see, invisible disabilities can be difficult for us to comprehend and accept. Yet, as employers are quickly discovering, within every disability, there often lies great ability. Hiring an employee with an invisible disability may not only result in good productivity and a loyal employee, it can also lead to a more tolerant and sensitive workplace for all, making minor accommodations seem trivial when compared with the greater overall benefits reaped.
Holland, J. (2017, June 6). The hidden challenges of invisible disabilities. Retrieved from
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