invisible disability, self
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Overcoming Stigma: How to Increase Self-Identification of Invisible Disabilities

The International Day of Persons With Disabilities is aimed at raising awareness of disability issues, empowering people with disabilities and advocating for a more disability-inclusive world. While visible disabilities like mobility issues or Down syndrome are immediately apparent, there are also medical conditions that affect a person’s daily functioning but are not immediately noticeable to others. According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, 30% of white-collar college-educated professionals have a disability. Of all employees with a disability, 62% have one that is invisible. Only 3.2% reported disclosing their disability to their employers. 

Due to the stigma attached to chronic physical illness, mental illness and other disabilities, professionals with invisible disabilities may feel uncomfortable disclosing their conditions and the possible need for accommodations to their employers. Fostering an inclusive and accommodating workplace can help prospective and current employees feel comfortable disclosing that they have an invisible disability.

Some examples of invisible disabilities include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Lupus
  • Dyslexia
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Asthma
  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Diabetes
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Lyme disease
  • Migraines
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Endometriosis
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Major depression
  • Schizophrenia

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects against employment discrimination toward qualified individuals with disabilities in all aspects of employment from hiring to advancement. However, legislation does not always erase stigma.

DiversityInc’s July webinar, “Leveraging Self-ID Campaigns to Increase Percentages of Professionals with Disabilities, Veterans & LGBTQ” stressed the importance of representation from the top down. Hire professionals with invisible disabilities at senior levels and showcase their stories and accomplishments. The more successful and visible employees with disabilities are, the more comfortable others will feel with disclosing their conditions.

The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability and Inclusion (EARN) expresses the importance of encouraging individuals to disclose their disability status by making them feel comfortable. Open the dialogue about invisible disabilities through communicating your company’s policies and practices regarding disability, and be open to suggestions. It is important to note that every person is different, and disability is not a monolith. Communicate clearly about the existence of reasonable accommodations and encourage the use of the accommodations.

Most job accommodations come at low or no cost to the employer, as discussed in DiversityInc Best Practices November Webinar “Disability Etiquette in the Workplace.” Organizations can take the lead in these conversations by making it clear that a disability that significantly affects one’s day-to-day life need not be the end to a person’s career.

Related story: Is Your Company Using 5 Critical Practices to Increase Disability Self-Identification Rates

Provide training for managers and HR professionals on how to receive and respond to accommodation requests and give examples of what accommodations can be made.

A culture that stresses the value of each individual’s strengths can help mitigate the microaggressions and discrimination people with invisible disabilities face. Companies can also create and leverage employee resource groups (ERG) that focus on disability and wellness to give those with invisible disabilities a sense of community and a place to share their concerns with others who have similar experiences. Introducing ERGs to prospective employees will give them a sense of what your company stands for when it comes to inclusivity and building community. Some organizations also have disability resource centers that help provide professional development connections and advice to employees with disabilities.

Invisible disabilities may not be physically apparent, but that does not mean they need to remain hidden. Creating a culture where employees feel empowered to be honest and authentic about barriers they face allows all professionals to thrive in an environment that supports them.

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