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  • Leigh Kester

Non Visible Disabilities in the workplace and the importance of being inclusive.

Non - visible disabilities what are they?

According to Harvard Business Review one person out of seven live with a disability, some will be visible and others are not. There is a vast amount of non-visible disabilities, such as Dyslexia, Autism, Sleep disorders, Mental Disorders, OCD and Anxiety to list but a few. Each disability whether visible or not, generate different symptoms and experiences for each individual. For example, you could gather a group of people with Autism in one room, they will each have their own symptoms and experience of living with the diagnosis. This is often seen when you compare a male who is Autistic to a female. The difference in symptoms offer an explanation as to why females are more likely to go undiagnosed than males, because the typical traits that you see in the media are stereotyped to the broadened male experience; being good with technology, maths or seemingly blunt or rude whereas women typically cope better with social situations, may be tidy and organised with fewer repetitive behaviours. Author Holly Smale describes her experience of Autism in her book Geek Girl and offers the question whether her Autism would have been diagnosed earlier than aged 39 if she were male due to the widely broadcast symptoms of a man with Autism.

Displaying a diverse group with a possible hidden disability

With so many people living with a disability why is there still such a large stigma and stereotype surrounding them?

The longevity of disability stigma can be found in the history books. The medieval era considered disability a punishment from God for sins of the individual or their family, alternatively it was thought to be the devil’s work. Others saw it as a weakness requiring dependence or a contagious disease. These may seem as dated and unrealistic views but unfortunately, stigmas and stereotypes still follow many groups of people including those with a disability. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that research found 88% of those with non-visible disabilities choose to not disclose their individuality because of their fear of repercussions due to the stigmas and stereotypes.

Stigmas are a mark which is a set of beliefs surrounding minority groups, they often align themselves with certain repercussions or outcomes which tend to heavily impact the victim of the stigma, in this case those with disabilities. Stigmas can cause stereotyping, social avoidance, discrimination, internalization and potentially hate crimes.

These stigmas are supported by the language we still use to this day. If you were to search the word ‘disability’ in the Thesaurus, the Synonyms which match this are ‘defect’, ‘weakness’, ‘unfitness’, ‘disqualification’ as well as ‘inability’. These words reaffirm the stigmas and stereotypes which can be backdated to the medieval periods and yet we still use them and cause internalization, shame, and embarrassment. The language used only adds to the fear for those with a non-visible disability as it increases a need to not share their individuality when they could otherwise receive suitable support.

Importance of inclusivity

You may be thinking; ‘why does the stigma matter? In my workplace everyone is treated equally’. When someone has a non-visible disability they could require reasonable adjustments, this could be being located closely to the toilets, requiring flexible hours, or requiring text to be dictated, but with the fear of repercussions those with non-visible disability aren’t able to ask for proportionate adjustments. This could lead to co-workers adding other labels to them such as ‘lazy’, ‘antisocial’, ‘incompetent’ or ‘rude’. Which decreases the feeling of team cohesion, creates isolation, and reduces the overall productivity of the team.

So, what are the benefits of being disability inclusive? Research conducted by Harvard Business Review shows that organisations which have inclusion initiatives, report a 26% increase in productivity. Those who went a step further and hired an inclusivity expert to audit policies, conduct workshops and recommend changes, saw wellbeing increase by 45%. Further research by Accenture demonstrated that organisations that hire people with disabilities and prioritize support, training and reasonable accommodations see higher profits and more productivity. They achieve 28% higher revenue 2 x net income, and 30% high profit margins on average.

Focus not on the differences of people with disabilities but the talent of the individual  - Neil Milliken

5 tips to being disability inclusive.

  • To create an inclusive workplace the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy should consider all disabilities and adjustments which may be required. The strategy should support managers to advocate for everyone’s right of access to work, with the knowledge that the company have provisions to support them.

  • When devising any adjustments for those with a disability it is important to consider them in the solution rather than assume and dictate. The needs of the individual may differ to someone else with the same diagnosis. Ask your employees what support they need to achieve their best, this should be a question asked to all employees.

  • Respect is vital in all workplaces, and this also includes respectful language. Be mindful that although you can’t see a disability doesn’t mean there isn’t one and that language is a powerful tool, detrimental to an individual’s psychological safety and ability to work.

  • Be empathetic, patient and understanding, not every diagnosis is followed by the same symptoms and requirements. Truly listen to their needs and requirement without making assumptions.

  • Create a psychologically safe environment, as a manager be prepared to be vulnerable with your team. For them to be vulnerable, open, and honest with you they will need to see the same behaviour in their management. Research shows managers who allow themselves to be vulnerable were seen as 75% more approachable than those who didn’t.


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