Being Aware of Disabilities, Whether Visible or Not

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Employees who have non-visible disabilities often have to make the difficult decision on whether or not to inform their employer of their condition. Many companies do not have a supportive environment when it comes to disabilities, and, in the case of non-visible disabilities, it can be especially difficult. Often, if an employee doesn’t “look” like someone who is disabled, it can create issues when they require accommodation. It is for this reason that many employees choose not to disclose their conditions.

Non-visible disabilities can include things such as:

  • Chronic health conditions and illnesses (which can include things such as diabetes, MS, fibromyalgia, narcolepsy, or cancer).

  • Sensory impairments (hearing loss, low vision, mobility limitations).

  • Mental health and learning disabilities (depression, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).

In Getting Support, Supporting Others: A Handbook for Working with Non-Visible Disabilities, an excellent pamphlet produced for the benefit of employees and people managers by Ernst & Young (E&Y), a global professional services firm, they advised of the steps employers can take to make the work environment better for employees with non-visible disabilities:

  • Raising awareness-Far too many people don’t realize that most of the disabilities they encounter in the work environment are probably not visible. There are people all around them who have health issues, mental health issues, et cetera, that affect the way they work and live each day.

  • Education–Teach employees and managers at a very basic level, covering things such as “language and etiquette and ways to be inclusive.” One of E&Y’s “quick guides” discusses things that are helpful to say to a colleague with a serious health condition-and what is not helpful.

  • Communications-clearly state the organization’s commitment to supporting people with visible and non-visible disabilities.

In any work environment, it is important to avoid assumptions. Because many workers might choose not to disclose their non-visible disabilities, it’s important to avoid assumptions about what people can’t do as well as assumptions about what people can do. For example, one of E&Y’s training videos portrays a team of employees taking the stairs from one floor to another for a meeting. Yet when one member of the team stops to wait for the elevator, a colleague turns back and says, “Come on, don’t be lazy,” not knowing that the individual has a non-visible disability and cannot use the stairs.


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