Supporting Non-Visible Disabilities in the Workplace
Not all disabilities are visually discernible.
11 million people in the UK live with some form of disability, and physical disabilities are just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s actually believed that 70% of all disabilities in the UK are non-visible1, which begs the question – are businesses doing enough to support non-visible disabilities in the workplace?
What is a non-visible disability?
The word disability is an umbrella term for anything impairing a person’s quality of life, whether physically or mentally, whereas a non-visible disability refers to conditions that aren’t immediately ‘visible’ to others.
Non-visible disabilities include2:
- mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- those with sensory processing difficulties
- cognitive impairments such as dementia, traumatic brain injuries, learning disabilities
- non-visible physical health conditions such as chronic pain, diabetes, respiratory conditions
- hearing loss
- low or restricted vision
This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Conditions such as epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, insomnia and lupus are also under the umbrella of non-visible disabilities, along with many more.
That’s not to say that someone can’t experience a combination of both a visible and non-visible disability – a person requiring the use of a wheelchair may also have a mental health difficulty – but there is a difference in how workplaces approach it.
Why does it matter?
Historically, there has been a greater emphasis on assisting those with visible disabilities in the workplace, as it can often be easier to address and make adjustments for.
Workplaces implement wheelchair parking and access, disabled toilets and accessibility measures, yet will often have little or nothing in place for non-visible disabilities.
If we combine numbers across the different types of non-visible disabilities, it could potentially mean 1 in 7 people in the UK have a non-visible disability3, yet it still isn’t standard for workplaces to account for this.
Why is it an employer’s responsibility?
Many employees will struggle with the thought of disclosing their non-visible disability to their employer for a number of reasons.
Primarily, though, it’s due to a perceived lack of understanding and stigma – employers aren’t just dropping the ball with non-visible disabilities, they’re not addressing them at all, so it’s no wonder why it’s interpreted negatively.
The main challenge for those with non-visible disabilities is that people can struggle to understand something they can’t see physical evidence of, which is just another barrier for those with non-visible disabilities in the workplace.
The last thing you should want as an employer is your employees fearing the prospect of disclosing their non-visible disability, or being concerned that it won’t make a difference even if they do.
Change begins by showing support around non-visible disabilities in the workplace in order to make employees feel comfortable talking about their own.
Implementing measures that show an acknowledgement is the first step in building trust, and a culture of understanding.
- Be open from the get-go
Businesses, by law, have to accommodate the requests of an employee with a disability if they require adjustments.
As mentioned above, however, this is reliant on employees feeling comfortable enough to disclose their disability.
This is why transparency is necessary from the start – including discussions around non-visible disabilities in the onboarding process for new employees, displaying resources around the workplace, and making your stance clear, can build trust.
For example, ensuring each employee is aware that they can take flexitime can be extremely helpful for those who may need to attend hospital appointments or may struggle with an early morning routine.
- Be consistent, considerate and compassionate
In the event that an employee does have a request for an adjustment, don’t leave them hanging.
Make sure that you’re making time to speak to an employee properly and also allocating time to make the changes they’ve asked for – if you nod along and then move on without taking action, you could’ve irreversibly damaged the trust your employee has in you.
Also make it clear that your business acknowledges that not all disabilities are visible and that you have a strong stance on diversity and inclusion, as it signals that you take it seriously.
- Integrate your approach
From staff training days and creating an environment promoting inclusion, to celebrating awareness days/weeks and implementing employee feedback, an approach is rarely going to be useful unless it’s company-wide.
Part of having a business that promotes equality and inclusion is making sure that it is implemented at all levels.
Training staff and celebrating awareness days simply means that all employees will have a better understanding of non-visible disabilities, and it promotes a better working environment in the long-term.
Setting up anonymous feedback also means that employees can be certain that they are heard, valued and it makes space for those who may not yet be comfortable disclosing their disability.
The workplace can be an intimidating environment for those with non-visible disabilities, particularly if no effort is made to accommodate, acknowledge or support them.
It is an employer’s responsibility to make sure that all employees feel equally valued, and that the support is there for visible and non-visible disabilities, should they need it.