Understanding invisible disabilities in the workplace

If you see someone at work using a wheelchair, wearing a hearing aid, or using an assistive device, you likely are aware the person has a disability. But not all disabilities are obvious to the eye. These are known as invisible disabilities. 

An invisible disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that can’t be seen from the outside. But it can impact someone’s movements, senses, or activities, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association

Some examples of invisible disabilities include autism spectrum disorder, depression, diabetes, and learning and thinking differences such as ADHD and dyslexia. Invisible disabilities can also include symptoms such as chronic pain, fatigue, and dizziness.

“It is important to understand invisible disabilities in the workplace,” says Jess Stainbrook, executive director of the Invisible Disabilities Association, “because based on statistics, a significant portion of your employees are likely to have one.”

The statistics on invisible disabilities

According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, among white-collar, college-educated employees, 30 percent have a disability. But only 3.2 percent self-identify as having a disability to their employers. And of all employees with a disability, 62 percent have an invisible disability. In the survey, those employees responded: “Unless I tell them, people do not know that I have a disability.”

That means many people go through their day-to-day work lives without revealing what disability they may be experiencing or how it impacts them physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

Why people are often silent about invisible disabilities

Fear is a major reason why people with disabilities — invisible or otherwise — don’t disclose them. “Those who are already employed may be afraid of opening themselves up to discrimination,” says Claire Odom, senior program manager at Understood. “On the other hand, some people don’t want to be seen for their disability, which they may consider to be a minor part of their life, so they don’t disclose.”

Another reason for silence: People with invisible disabilities may think that co-workers won’t believe they have a disability. “There’s no easy way to convince people you have something that no one can see,” says Stainbrook.

And job seekers may be reluctant when asked on an application if they have a disability. “Many fear that answering yes will reduce their chance of getting the job,” Stainbrook adds.

How you can help employees with invisible disabilities

You may be surprised by the high percentage of employees in the workforce who have invisible disabilities. So, what can you do to help? Here are concrete steps you can take.

1. Make employees feel comfortable disclosing their disability.

Employees with invisible disabilities will feel more comfortable presenting their authentic selves if they know they work in an inclusive environment. This starts with communicating disability inclusion efforts across the whole company.

And those who disclose their disabilities are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than those who have not disclosed to anyone, the 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation found. 

2. Review the type of accommodations your company offers for people with disabilities. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations. “People with disabilities, invisible or not, can perform their job at or above expectations if given a way to do it that meets their needs,” says Odom.

Providing accommodations for employees with disabilities is not usually expensive or difficult. According to a survey by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 58 percent of accommodations cost nothing. And nearly all of the rest involved a one-time cost that averaged only $500. Here are some examples of low-cost accommodations:

  • An employee who struggles with working memory due to a learning disability could receive written instructions for job duties instead of relying on verbal discussion.

  • A person with a chronic condition may need a flexible start time or break time to take medication.

3. Offer services and support for people with disabilities.

Creating or promoting an employee resource group (ERG) that focuses on disability is an empowering forum for employees with disabilities and their colleagues who are allies to network and raise issues. 

Your company can offer support for employees with invisible disabilities in other ways. This can include:

  • Making sure mental health coverage is included in your company insurance plan. Seeing out-of-network providers can be costly.

  • Promoting free services that are part of the employee benefit package. An example of this is health coaching to reduce stress.

The benefits of supporting employees with disabilities — both visible and invisible — go beyond improving the work lives of individual employees. A 2018 study by Accenture discovered that companies that adopt best practices for hiring and supporting people with disabilities achieved — on average — 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income, and 30 percent higher economic profit margins than their peers.

An inclusive workplace that supports people with disabilities of all kinds leads to more than just bottom-line benefits. It fosters a culture of openness and creates an environment where all employees can succeed.


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