A Workplace Guide to Non-Visible Disabilities
When people speak about disabilities, it often conjures up an image of a wheelchair, hearing aid, or an assistive device.
These are examples of very visible disabilities.
Non-visible disabilities such as physical, mental, or neurological conditions that can’t be seen from the outside can impact multiple areas of an individual’s life, yet are not considered by many workplaces.
It begs the question, if you’re not aware of a condition…how do you plan for them?
Consider whether your workplace is doing enough for those with non-visible disabilities.
What are non-visible disabilities?
As mentioned above, a non-visible disability is one that isn’t immediately visible to others, even though these disabilities can have an impact on an individual’s life and ways of working.
These disabilities may also be referred to as ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ disabilities, which can somewhat further the stigma attached to non-visible disabilities by erasing the legitimacy of the disability or implying that it doesn’t exist, or even that an individual is hiding their disability deliberately.
Language is an important factor in inclusivity, after all!
Examples of some non-visible disabilities include:
– Non-visible health conditions, such as diabetes, chronic pain or fatigue, respiratory conditions
– Visual impairments
– Hearing loss
– Cognitive impairment, such as dementia, traumatic brain injury, or learning disabilities
– Sensory and processing difficulties
– Mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder
This list isn’t comprehensive, as there are many types of non-visible disabilities, and the level of support that individuals with non-visible disabilities require can vary.
Non-visible disabilities are more common than you think
Around 1 in 5 people in the UK have a disability1.
The difficulty in determining the number of people in the UK dealing with non-visible disabilities is that, as an example, someone living with respiratory difficulties might not have outward signs of their disability, but another person might.
Part of the issue when it comes to addressing non-visible disabilities in the workplace is that there can be an assumption that most disabilities are visible and are generally acquired outside of working age.
Yet many in the workplace are experiencing non-visible disabilities without their colleagues, managers, or employers being aware.
An employee does not have to disclose a disability, and this forms part of the double-edged sword. The employee doesn’t feel capable of disclosing the disability and therefore the employer isn’t aware of it.
Disclosure of a disability is voluntary, and is entirely at the discretion of the employee.
Generally speaking, an employee may only disclose their disability due to the need for reasonable adjustments or in the event of a workplace or performance issue – but should that have to be the case?
If a workplace is working towards inclusivity, then an employee with a non-visible disability won’t feel somewhat obligated to disclose their disability simply to get the support that they need.
Here’s what can be done instead.
– Step one: creating an inclusive workplace culture
None of the below steps are going to be effective without an inclusive workplace culture.
Why, you ask?
If an employee feels as though they are likely to experience stigma relating to their non-visible disability, then no number of changes in the workplace will ever help them to feel genuinely supported.
Acknowledging and showing support for hidden disabilities makes the environment more open and accepting, which can make it far easier for an employee to discuss their disability.
This isn’t just the responsibility of a line manager, though – support for change has to be given from the highest to the lowest level, otherwise the inconsistency will cause confusion. That being said, having line managers that are aware and open to conversations does go a long way to setting the right culture!
Do you have initiatives that show support for non-visible disabilities that are ongoing from recruitment and throughout employment?
Is there an effort outside of reasonable adjustments? Is disability listed in your diversity statement?
If not, then it will be difficult to cultivate an environment in which employees with non-visible disabilities will ever feel fully comfortable and supported.
– Step two: train your managers
If an employee is going to disclose, their line manager is usually their most immediate option.
This makes sense given that a line manager has direct contact with the employee and can easily make adjustments in terms of equipment, workload, and flexibility.
One of the most important things a line manager can do is make sure each employee is heard and that they create a space in which feedback can be given openly without fear of judgement or reprisal.
Having inclusive managers is integral towards creating a discrimination and bias-free workplace, which also creates a sense of safety for those who might be considering asking for further support.
– Step three: ongoing efforts
Being proactive to the needs of your employees should be paramount.
Rather than waiting for an employee to request adjustments, embedding them into the processes and policy of the workplace is far more effective.
For example, introducing the option for flexitime for all employees can be helpful for those who need hospital appointments, or for those who wish to avoid the busiest commuting hours.
Being proactive means that all employees can benefit from a more open, inclusive environment, rather than employers simply complying with the bare minimum when it comes to reasonable adjustments after they’ve been asked to.
Supporting non-visible disabilities doesn’t begin and end with making an effort towards reasonable adjustments.
Displaying and stating diversity-led practices, providing staff training, a proactive approach to inclusive policy, and making feedback and suggestions part of the process for employees and their line managers can all go a long way in providing the best possible environment for all employees.
Remember – an inclusive environment is beneficial for everyone in the workplace and the way it functions, which is why getting it right is essential.