Not all disabilities are visible. In the U.S., 96% of people with chronic medical conditions show no outward signs of illness. And the incidence rate of invisible disabilities is expected to grow as people navigate an increasing number of physical and mental health issues stemming from COVID-19.
For these reasons, invisible disability awareness is important for business leaders as they design and implement equitable company policies. Here’s what you should know.
What Is an Invisible Disability?
Sometimes referred to as hidden disabilities or invisible illnesses, invisible disabilities include physical, mental, and neurological conditions that aren’t visibly obvious. While observers can’t always see them, they have a very real impact on the people living with them every day. As the Invisible Disabilities Association notes, they can affect a person’s movements, senses, and activities.
The list of conditions associated with invisible disabilities is long and varied. It includes some hearing or vision impairments, chronic pain, mobility impairments, and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Invisible disabilities can also refer to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, sleep disorders, fibromyalgia, and renal failure — provided symptoms significantly disrupt normal daily activities.
Why Invisible Disability Awareness Matters
People who are invisibly disabled should receive the same considerations and protections as those with other disabilities. Nobody should face discrimination for having a disability — visible or otherwise.
As top employers strengthen their commitments to nurturing diverse and inclusive workplaces, they must understand, discuss, and consider the full spectrum of invisible disabilities and how they might affect a person’s safety, comfort, and ability to work to their full potential. Employers that invest time and resources to support individual abilities and foster an inclusive environment for everyone stand to see significant gains in employee loyalty — and performance.
Unfortunately, many employers are not aware of the prevalence of hidden disabilities. A 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that about 30% of white-collar, college-educated employees have some form of disability — but only 3.2% of workers self-identify to their employers as having a disability. Perhaps most pertinent to this topic, about 62% of all workers living with disabilities are invisibly disabled. That means there’s a considerable number of workers who have never revealed the nature of their disability or how it affects them physically, mentally, and emotionally.
How Can Companies Support Employees With Invisible Disabilities?
The first step is to review your company’s accommodations for employees with disabilities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities have a right to reasonable accommodations on the job. By providing these accommodations, you are creating an equitable workplace where each person can meet — and exceed — expectations.
The good news? It’s usually not difficult or expensive to provide appropriate accommodations for employees with disabilities. According to a survey by the Job Accommodation Network, 56% of accommodations cost absolutely nothing to implement. Nearly all of the rest involve a one-time cost averaging about $500.
What might some of these accommodations entail? Examples include:
- Provide written instructions rather than relying solely on verbal directions to an employee who struggles with memory due to a learning disability.
- Offer a flexible start time or break time to take medication for an employee with a chronic condition.
- Support your team’s physical and financial well-being by offering Paytient as a benefit, empowering them to access and afford whatever care they need.
After taking invisible disabilities into consideration, smart leaders can reconfigure their diversity, equity, and inclusion programs to meet the needs of all employees. Making invisible disability awareness part of your company culture will be increasingly important as employees contend with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though many folks who contracted the virus have recovered, many will face chronic health problems for the rest of their lives. It will be crucial for employers to provide safe and secure avenues for employees to disclose disabilities and make appropriate accommodations tailored to the individual.
Over time, a commitment to DEI becomes a sustainable competitive advantage and motivates every single person across your company. Now is the time for top leaders to shape and cultivate the kind of corporate America that will welcome and empower workers in the next century.