According to the charity, Scope, there are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK. Nearly 1 in 5 working adults are disabled (19%).
You may look around your workplace and struggle to see many disabled people. There might be someone with a wheelchair or maybe someone who uses a stick. But on the whole there are few visibly disabled people. And therein lies a huge problem.
What is invisible disability?
Because we cannot see any evidence of a disability, we don’t always realise it is there. If someone walks and talks and appears to function well, we do not see the pain they might be in. Or the exhaustion they are feeling. We don’t know the mental anguish they live with, or the anxiety and fear they might have.
Many people have a condition, illness or impairment which causes difficulty on a daily basis. If that condition lasts at least 12 months, then this is the legal definition of “disability”. Those people might need an adjustment to help them deal with life more easily. This could be something in their daily life, such as the use of a parking space to lessen the distance they have to walk. Alternatively, they might need a seat on public transport. In the workplace, they might need an adjustment to enable them to work more effectively. This could be a change in their duties, or a specific chair. It might mean altered hours, or regular breaks. It could be a fan, or heater, or footrest.
The point is that, as employers and as colleagues, we don’t know what we don’t know. If we cannot see the disability, then it is an invisible disability (also known as a hidden disability).
How can we help?
The best way to help someone who is living with an invisible disability – or any disability – is to ask them what helps them. They know their condition and what constraints that puts on their life. Through experience, they know what helps and what makes things worse. They know when they need a break, or some different work, or a different seat.
But many people feel unable to talk about their disability. There may be many reasons for this. Sometimes they have faced stigma from work, from the general public, even from friends and family. More often, they face a lack of knowledge and understanding. We don’t want to appear stupid, so we don’t ask how to help people. So we make assumptions about what helps – and those assumptions can be wrong.
Employing someone with an invisible disability
Employers have a huge role to play in changing the attitudes towards disability. There is also a legal obligation on employers to make “reasonable adjustments” in the workplace to support those with disabilities. So what is a “reasonable adjustment”? It is any adjustment at all which might make it easier for someone to do their job. The best way to decide what is needed is to talk to the disabled person and find out from them.
If a person feels safe in the workplace and trusts their employer, then they are far more likely to explain their difficulties and be open about a disability. This can open a discussion about any adjustments and support needed. This has to be an ongoing process. Things change, both in the workplace and in the individual’s life and medical care. So the conversation has to be ongoing. The individual has to feel confident in bringing the subject up and airing their difficulties. Then you can find a mutual and appropriate solution.
It may be (indeed, it is likely) that you already employ someone, or some people, with an invisible disability. If you don’t already know about it, then that could be a sign that they don’t feel safe. They may well be struggling on their own. If this is the case, their performance will be suffering, or they may have attendance or lateness issues. They may be having a high number of sickness absences. They may be in conflict with colleagues.
Open the discussion about invisible disability
Some simple things you can do to make your workplace safe for people with an invisible disability include:
- Give a clear message that it is safe to discuss disability (or other difficulties) at work. Cover it in induction, in regular performance discussions, and at every opportunity.
- Review all your policies and processes and ensure they take account of people with disabilities and their needs.
- Train your managers and other staff on the right approach to take and language to use.
- Encourage your managers to have regular discussions with individuals in their teams to give an opportunity to raise any issues.
- Put in place any adjustments which are needed to make work more comfortable for people.
- Make sure your people feel valued (those with invisible disability, those with visible disability, those without).
- Set up an anonymous suggestion box. Then people can make suggestions about things which might help them, without having to tell you about their disability.
Taking it further
If you are interested in more information about disability in the workplace, or want some support, then you might want to speak to an advisor who specialises in this area.
Roland Chesters is a Disability Development Consultant who, himself, has an invisible disability and is an inspirational speaker and advisor. For more information about the services he offers, see his website, Luminate.uk.com or contact him.