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Supporting Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Thursday, April 2, 2020
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Often, we hear about the importance of diversity and inclusion for organizational success. While organizations work to improve inclusion, many times they are focused on race, gender, age, and visible disabilities. However, this focus may be missing a large segment of their workforce that suffer in silence from misunderstandings and judgments that leads to exclusion. I am talking about employees who have invisible or hidden disabilities. Invisible disabilities are physical, mental, or neurological conditions that are not outwardly visible but create real challenges or limitations to the individual’s movement, behaviors, senses, or activities at home and in the workplace. There are too many invisible disabilities to name them all, but a here are a few that could be affecting employees in your in your organization:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • autism
  • Crohn’s disease
  • fibromyalgia
  • dyslexia
  • insomnia
  • migraines.

Invisible disabilities present themselves in multiple ways and, therefore, it is unsurprising that their effects at work could be just as diverse. Employees with invisible disabilities might:

  • take more breaks
  • take additional time to complete work
  • use a flexible schedule to work during productive hours (for instance, work in evenings)
  • have trouble relating to others, appearing socially abrupt or awkward
  • look to work in quiet or less distracting workspaces
  • need flexibility or additional time off work.

Since the workforce can only see the effects of the invisible disability and not the disability itself, many times there are misconceptions or judgements toward the individuals. Many people do not perceive invisible disabilities as being a real disability and, therefore, have a hard time believing, understanding, or accepting that individuals suffering with an invisible disability may need extra support at work. For this reason, employees with invisible disabilities typically do not disclose their disability because they are worried about being stigmatized, discriminated against, or excluded. In conjunction with not disclosing their invisible disabilities, employees are not asking for accommodations to help them be more engaged and effective in the workplace.

In the 2010 census, 21.3 percent (51.5 million) of individuals 15 years and older in the United States were living with a disability. Of those individuals, 6.5 percent (15.7 million) were considered to be “not severe” such as dyslexia, ADHD, and emotional conditions. Given these numbers, it is probable that most companies have current employees who are living, working, and possibly struggling with an invisible disability that they have not shared with their organization. Therefore, it is important for organizations to lean forward in supporting these individuals by improving their working environment by changing workforce perceptions to create understanding and build trusting relationships.

To work toward building trust, employees need to see leadership’s commitment to actively fostering diversity and inclusion to include those with invisible disabilities along with the genuine support received in the workplace from colleagues and organizational systems (accommodations, for example).

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Organizational leadership can start by focusing on building the workforce’s awareness of invisible disabilities. Diversity awareness is a key first step to improving inclusion in any organization. Organizations can use this powerful tool by developing an awareness campaign focused on understanding and supporting individuals with invisible disabilities. A successful campaign should include workforce training to set a basic understanding and identify ways that employees can be aware of others’ disabilities, whether they be visible or not. Awareness training goes a long way to adjusting assumptions and changing perceptions. Additionally, organizations can use employee training to foster the development of cognitive empathy to help employees build skills to better understand or attempt to “walk in someone else’s shoes” with an invisible disability, which can remove negative perceptions or biases.

Organizations can look for other opportunities throughout the year, such as diversity awareness month in October, to sustain awareness of invisible disabilities to keep their inclusion at the forefront of the diversity and inclusion discussion.

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Additionally, leadership can work with human resources to ensure that the organization has an accommodations policy and procedures for supporting employees with invisible disabilities. As a part of the awareness campaign, organizations should work to educate employees on the availability of accommodations, how the organization can help, and the process for requesting support.

Improving awareness and understanding of invisible disabilities throughout the workforce and actively showing employees with invisible disabilities that their leadership is committed to supporting their success will build rapport and improve trust for all.

About the Author

Dr. Joy Papini, president of CIDIS Consulting, works with organizations to assess their current culture and develop diversity and inclusion strategies and initiatives that create engaging and effective workplace environments.

Dr. Papini is an organizational psychologist with over 20 years of consulting experience supporting commercial and federal organizations. Her areas of expertise include diversity and inclusion, organizational research, people management, organizational development, and strategic planning. She holds memberships with the Society for Human Resource Management, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and the US Women’s Chamber of Commerce. You can connect with her on LinkedIn (JoyPapini) or contact Joy.Papini@CIDISConsulting.com.

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