Handling Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

These are the best practices for working with employees with invisible disabilities to ensure compliance with ADA requirements and to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.

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Handling Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Here's what you need to know:

  • “Invisible disabilities” is an umbrella term that captures a wide spectrum of disabilities that are not immediately apparent
  • Invisible disabilities deserve and legally require the same level of accommodations that other disabilities do
  • It’s essential that employers understand ADA laws
  • When it comes to employees with disabilities, only discuss their disability insofar as it relates to the person’s ability to do their job
  • Make sure all of your employees, managers, and fellow leaders understand that anyone with a disability will be supported

It’s 2022 and most people understand that disabilities come in a variety of forms. Visible physical disabilities or obvious mental disabilities are just 2 types of disabilities. Disabilities can take a variety of forms that aren’t obvious or visible, and many are invisible. Anxiety and depression that get in the way of “normal” everyday functioning and learning disabilities like dyslexia are examples.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of invisible disabilities before. Maybe you’re taking a serious look at how to support your employees who have them. Whatever the reason, here’s a crash course in how to handle invisible disabilities in the workplace.

What are invisible disabilities?

Invisible disabilities are hidden disabilities. “Invisible disabilities” is an umbrella term that captures a wide spectrum of disabilities that are not immediately apparent.

Because they’re not easily detectable, it’s hard to determine exactly how many have them. But Accessibility.com estimates that up to 20% of people in the United States have an invisible disability. Depending on how large your company is, chances are you have at least 1 employee with an invisible disability.

The importance of understanding ADA laws

The Americans with Disabilities Act (known as the ADA) defines a person with a disability as anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits 1 or more major life activities. It’s important to note, though, that this is a legal definition, not a medical one.

The law isn’t the only way that disabilities are defined. But the law is an important element to understand because that’s where compliance and discrimination issues arise.

ADA laws not only outline what is legally considered to be a disability in the United States, but they also prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. The laws apply to all areas of public life, from schools to transportation and — yep, you guessed it — employment.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from ADA laws and regulations is that they give people with disabilities the same protections that are afforded to others on the basis of sex, age, race, religion, and more.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act

While the ADA became law in 1990, an important suite of amendments were added in 2008. The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (known as the ADAAA) became law on January 1, 2009.

It made changes to the legal definition of disability and applied the change to all 3 elements of the ADA. Essentially, the ADAAA broadened the definition of disability and said that the law should focus more on discrimination and less on defining disability.

When it comes to employees with disabilities, only discuss their disability insofar as it relates to the person’s ability to do their job.

Because the ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, it’s essential that employers understand the laws that regulate them, not only so you can be in compliance with legal requirements and avoid discrimination lawsuits, but in an effort to be as inclusive and equitable as possible.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for employers is this: When it comes to employees with disabilities, only discuss their disability insofar as it relates to the person’s ability to do their job.

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How to support employees with invisible disabilities

Just because a disability might be invisible doesn’t mean it’s any less impactful than a more obvious disability. Therefore, invisible disabilities deserve (and legally require, in fact) the same level of accommodations that other disabilities do.

While every business is different, here are a few common strategies for supporting employees with disabilities:

Educate yourself about invisible disabilities

If you’re reading this, then you’re well down this path already. The best thing you can do as an employer is get familiar with invisible disabilities.

While understanding invisible disabilities in general is a great place to start, it’s essential to remember that every person and every disability is different. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re disabled, while the opposite is true for others.

Understand that not every employee will want to disclose their disability

Whether it’s with leadership or with their teams, not everyone wants to disclose their disability. Some people simply prefer to keep it private. Others might only want to tell the people they’re closest to. Whatever the reason, know that the decision of whether or not to disclose a disability is up to the person with the disability.

While you can’t force people to share their health information, you can encourage your workers to do so. This can come in many forms, from touting the resource available to having an open-door policy for communication. The key is to make people feel safe and comfortable bringing up their disability at work.

Educate your company about disabilities and work

Make sure all of your employees, managers, and fellow leaders understand that anyone with a disability will be supported. Ensure that everyone knows that intolerance of people with disabilities will not be accepted (and follow through with it).

Make sure all of your employees, managers, and fellow leaders understand that anyone with a disability will be supported.

It’s not a bad idea to offer additional training or learning opportunities for managers. This can be especially beneficial if they might not be sure how to support people with disabilities on their teams.

Create and uphold flexible work arrangements

Whether it’s a flexible approach to PTO or the ability to work from home without questions asked, the more flexibility the better. Some invisible disabilities mean that people need more mental health days.

Some might mean extra doctor appointments or therapy sessions. Whatever it is, being able to work from home with flexible work hours can help support the unique needs of your employees with disabilities, visible or invisible.

If invisible disabilities are new to you, it can be uncomfortable learning something new. You might worry if you’ve unintentionally wronged someone with an invisible disability before. The important thing is that you’re learning now and actively trying to do your best moving forward.

Just like your employees can benefit from flexibility, so can you with regard to how disabilities are handled at your company. It should be an evolving practice that’s always improving and making the most of updated best practices and research.

One of the best ways to evolve your approach to disabilities at your company is to ask for feedback. Find out if the changes you’re making are resonating with your intended audience. Be open to constructive criticism and adapt accordingly.

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