Invisible Disability In the Workplace

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, or contact him.

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Value My Abilities and Support My Disabilities

I read a story in the news yesterday, about a comedian with disabilities who used a mobility scooter.  She was on her way home from a gig by train.  This woman was treated poorly by a guard, who then made a public announcement about her.  She felt humiliated.   At the end, the article commented that the rail company who employed the guard were horrified at the story but declined to say whether or not they were going to take any action against the guard.  I support that decision.  Any action is between them as the employer and the guard as the employee.

This unpleasant story got me thinking about the way we treat people who have “disabilities”.  More specifically, how do employers treat them?

Am I overlooking my best asset?

The real key is to look at people’s abilities, rather than their disabilities.  What can they do?  And what can they do well?  How will they be an asset to our business?  In these days of skills shortages, it would be madness to cut yourself off from a potential source of the very skills you seek, just because that person may come with some “difficulty” which you need to address.  How many of us don’t come with difficulties attached?

I think employers are sometimes afraid to employ people who have a disability, as they may have to make some adjustments in the workplace.  Well, any decent employer would be considering adjustments for any of their employees, not just those with a disability.  Many people have caring responsibilities, or childcare needs, or transportation difficulties.  Some people may need to work specific hours, or in a specific location.

So adjusting to a wheelchair, or giving a different screen, or giving a different chair – or any other “reasonable adjustment” is probably a minor issue.  This is especially the case when it is measured against the benefits that individual could bring.  I remember years ago that a local supermarket employed a woman who had learning difficulties.  She was the happiest, most helpful person and always greeted everyone with a huge smile and a cheery greeting.  She was really popular with staff and customers alike.  What a huge asset she was for that employer.

How can I find you?

Another reason why employers may not make the best use of this pool of potential employees, is simply a logistical one. If disabled people don’t apply for vacancies, how can I find them to employ them?  This is really a chicken and egg situation.  People who may have a physical or mental challenge may be afraid to apply for mainstream jobs, especially if they have faced rejection or harsh treatment before. There are several agencies which specialise in finding work for people with disabilities and they would always be glad to hear from an employer who may be able to offer work.  I am not suggesting that you employ solely from this pool, but including this route in your search for employees may reap benefits for both you and the individual.

How do I support you?

It is only natural that you have concerns about giving the right support to people.  But how do you know what  is needed?  Ask them!  The individuals themselves know what they need to be able to function effectively in the world.  They have been living with this issue for a long time, so they are in the best position to guide you.

There is also a huge amount of help available to make it easy to employ someone with a disability. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of professional help and guidance on any adjustments you may need to make.  You need to think about the normal every day situation, but also what happens in an emergency – if you need to evacuate the building, for example.

Going back to the original story, there is one more thing to think about.  Do your other employees know how to behave and how to treat their new colleague? Again, you could start by asking the individual what messages they want to give to their colleagues.

In another news story yesterday, an autistic girl had written an article on social media about the difficulties she faces on a daily basis.  She had done this because she wanted people to understand how she felt and thought about things.  Mostly people just want others to understand the difficulties they face, and make necessary allowances for that.  Isn’t that what we all want?

Am I already making adjustments?

You probably already employ people who have a “disability”  and need adjustments, but they may not have told you, or their colleagues, about it.  Many people have mental health difficulties, either temporary or longer-term, which they do not want to share with the world.

In addition, any women may have hormonal issues (menstrual or menopausal, or any stop in between) – not a disability, but it will probably affect their work from time to time.  Again, it is not something we like to talk about necessarily.

I have suffered from migraine for my whole life.  It is just part of my life and I would not consider it a disability, nor would I dream of telling an employer about it at interview.  But it means that I need to take the odd day off sick – usually at an inconvenient time.  Or sometimes I am at work but not functioning to the best of my ability.

The point I am making is that we are all different and we all have challenges in our lives.  We also all like to be appreciated and valued.  This is especially important at work, where we spend so much time.  So as employers, we should be supporting our employees to produce their best, to develop to their highest ability, to reach for the stars.  This may mean making some adjustments, for any individual, not just those perceived by the world to have a “disability”.

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