According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability. Disabled-World.com further adds to this information sharing that an “estimated 10% of people in the U.S. have a medical condition which could be considered a type of invisible disability.
An invisible disability (or also referred to as a hidden disability) is 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.” Examples of invisible disabilities can include: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Deafness, Fibromyalgia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Diabetes, Lupus, sleep disorders, lactose intolerance, Depression, Asthma, food allergies, and many, many more. The effects of these illnesses do not just affect an individual’s personal life though, they can also have heavy impacts on their professional lives as well.
The decision to disclose a disability (visible or not) in the workplace is a very personal decision. Some people choose to be upfront with their employer so they can work together to determine suitable work arrangements. While others may choose not to disclose for fear of discrimination or even because their hidden disability will bring more attention to them in ways they would prefer not to be seen. Regardless of disclosure, it falls on each company or organization to ensure they always have inclusive practices in place to make employees feel welcomed and valued. Below are a few easy and simple things to keep in mind to help champion inclusive practices in your workplace.
Refrain from Judgement and/or Making Assumptions. No matter what state or country you call home, we are all familiar with the International Symbol of Access (ISA). This blue and white symbol depicting a person in a wheelchair has been used for decades to illustrate building or property features that are specifically allocated/designed for individuals with disabilities. Sadly though, most people often only associate visible disabilities with this symbol (i.e. wheelchairs, crutches, prosthetics, etc.) and don’t consider those with hidden disabilities as rightful, lawful, users of such amenities. (In fact, many questions have been raised regarding the level of inclusivity surrounding the ISA itself.) Many individuals with hidden disabilities have reported being harassed or receiving looks of judgment for using ISA designated spaces simply because they do not look like someone who should be entitled to do so. So how can you help break the stereotype? Start by educating yourself and others on visible and invisible disabilities to discourage assumptions and generalizations. The more you learn, the more equipped you’ll be to provide support to those who need it and/or report incidents of harassment when you see them. You could also encourage hanging signs in or near designated ISA spaces to remind people that not all disabilities are at surface level.
Accessibility has No Boundaries. Typically, when people think about accessibility in the workplace, the first thing that comes to mind are the structural components that follow ADA guidelines (ramps, door frames, elevator button heights, etc.). What they do not tend to think about are other aspects of operations that are beyond the physical space – their computer systems, food options, noise levels, etc. To champion inclusivity for those with invisible disabilities, it can help to examine current practices within the workspace and see if any could impose limitations in unthought-of ways. For example, if your company has a habit of consistently making changes to website layouts or file-sharing technology (like SharePoint or DropBox), this could prove difficult for individuals with cognitive disabilities that rely on consistency and familiarity. Another area to consider would be on-site perks that are offered to employees, like if your company offers a free snack room or cafeteria; are there a variety of items or menu choices available to accommodate various dietary needs or restrictions? Or adversely, are there selections omitted from the provided offerings to allow those with severe allergies to utilize the space and interact with co-workers?
Believing is Not Seeing. Oftentimes, the pain and/or symptoms experienced by an individual with a hidden disability are discounted or pushed aside. In some cases, they have even been accused of faking or imagining their symptoms (by the general public and even doctors) because there is no visible evidence to support their claims. This is due, in part, to the socially constructed mindset of “I have to see something to believe something”. This not only increases frustration for the individual experiencing these issues but can also lead to feelings of helplessness or defeat both in and out of the workplace. The best way anyone can support an individual with a hidden disability is to believe them! If they share that they are in pain or suffering, acknowledge their feelings and ask what you can do to help. There may not always be a physical way to assist, but sometimes the comfort of knowing someone believes what they are saying, and is willing to help or advocate if possible, is what is needed most.
The Center for Career Development has a list of many great resources to help individuals with disabilities navigate the workspace. Whether you are deciding if/when to disclose a disability, how to request accommodations, or feel as though you may have experienced some form of harassment or discrimination, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a great place to start. For those who may prefer to meet with someone directly, we also recommend scheduling a Career Coaching appointment to talk with a consultant or reaching out to the Center for Students with Disabilities.