“Invisible" Disabilities in the Workplace

Posted by on .

Of all employees with a disability, 62% have an invisible condition.

Of all employees with a disability, 62% have an invisible condition.

In the past, we’ve discussed disabilities like deafness/hard-of-hearing, blindness/low vision, and certain physical disabilities. These disabilities can be obvious to others because they are often accompanied by equipment (canes, wheelchairs, service animals, prosthetics, hearing aids, etc.) or because they have an immediately apparent effect on how the person navigates the world or interacts with others, such as when a deaf person lets you know they cannot hear you when you try to speak to them.

However, there are disabilities and conditions that are far less apparent to an outside observer, yet may still require an accommodation at work. In fact, 96% of people with chronic medical conditions show no outward sign of their illness that is obvious to most people, and many of those conditions can result in a disability. These are often referred to as “invisible disabilities”, an umbrella term used to refer to any condition that may not be readily apparent to others but, as the Department of Labor’s definition of disability states, is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more ‘major life activities.’” This can include conditions like fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis (MS), as well as some forms of more common conditions, such as diabetes. Though one study found that of all employees with a disability, 62% have an invisible condition, 88% of people with such a disability have concerns about disclosing it to their employer, coworkers, and even friends and family. This is due to fear of discrimination, including a decreased chance of being hired and increased chance of being fired, fear that they will not be believed, and/or fear of word spreading about their condition beyond their control.

Many employees with invisible disabilities may have means of handling their disability at work on their own, and therefore may not require an accommodation. While the ADA states that no employee or potential employee is required to disclose their disability, disclosing is often the only way to receive a needed accommodation at work. The employee therefore may have to put themselves in a vulnerable position, so it’s important as an employer to be supportive. Accommodations for these conditions might include things we have not discussed in previous posts, like frequent or extended breaks, a nonstandard schedule, or working from home – remember that it will vary from case to case. Because the reason for these accommodations may not be obvious to other workers, the employee with disabilities may be perceived as impersonal, uncommitted, or “weird”, and as a result the employee may feel misunderstood, invalidated, or ignored. Under the ADA, the employer is not legally allowed to share information about an employee’s disability, even when other employees ask questions about why the employee with the disability is receiving what they might perceive to be “special treatment”. It’s important to discourage others from speaking negatively of the employee with the disability and/or of disabilities themselves, and emphasize that the employee with the disability is still doing their job as expected and that they a valuable team member; in some cases, disability awareness training may be appropriate.

When it comes to invisible disabilities in the workplace, as with all disabilities, empathy and flexibility are key. Remember that accommodations for such conditions are simply tools to ensure the employee can do their best. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s important to remember that having a disability doesn’t make someone a worse employee or a “bad investment” (in fact, often the opposite). Employers should work directly with the employee with disabilities to figure out how to best accommodate them and help them succeed in their job, and strive to set an example for a workplace that welcomes and supports all disabilities.

Additional Resources

    Feature Articles
See More Feature Articles