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Diversity & Inclusion

I worked in corporate America with an invisible disability: here are the changes I’d like to see

Posted by Jill Griffin

Last Updated February 24, 2022
|4 min read

The word “disability” typically brings to mind the ones you can see. However, of the 42 million Americans who have a severe disability, 96% of these are invisible. They are unseen physical, mental or neurological conditions that impact how someone moves, senses, and approaches activities. 

Nonprofit think tank and workplace advisory group Coqual found that 30% of white-collar employees are disabled and 62% of these have invisible disabilities, such as PTSD, diabetes, cancer, lupus, Crohn’s, and vestibular disorders.

I am one of the 62%. In 2001, I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and vestibular disorder. For many years, I decided to keep my disability and its consequent physical limitations a secret at work. With no talk of equality in the workplace in the early 2000s and a prevalent culture of “get it done,” I worried about losing opportunities and becoming a liability. 

Over the years, workplace culture has made considerable shifts and changes to incorporate disability inclusion. But the accommodation of invisible disabilities still leaves something to be desired.

These fears crept up throughout different moments. On one occasion, a department event included an afternoon on a yacht, an atmosphere that would trigger my vestibular disorder. Since my doctor recommended I avoid outings like this, I voiced my concerns to my company’s leadership. Instead of an alternative being found, (like finding a way to include me before or after the event), leadership made the decision to proceed without me and another colleague who had a similar disability. We both ended up missing out on a collaborative event that had the potential to foster friendships, opportunities, and new connections.

Over the years, workplace culture has made considerable shifts and changes to incorporate disability inclusion. But the accommodation of invisible disabilities still leaves something to be desired. True disability inclusion, according to the nonprofit Understood, offers all "employees with disabilities — visible and invisible — an equal opportunity to succeed, to learn, to be compensated fairly, and to advance.” 

My work experience has spanned several positions with large-scale, publicly traded companies, and I never saw any mention of invisible disability in their employee handbooks. And while the responsibility lies on us to advocate for ourselves, here are some changes corporate America can implement to create an equitable work culture for employees with disabilities.

Learn about the invisible disability gap

The year 2001 was a different time. We didn’t have access to the resources we do now, nor were there as many disability rights groups and advocates. Back then, I learned all I could about my condition through newspaper articles, doctor visits, studying brain health, and medical journals I tracked down on the web. 

Today, the information is a few keyboard clicks away. Resources like Invisible Disabilities, AODA, VEDA, and others can help businesses learn and provide the appropriate support and accommodation to their employees with disabilities. 

Foster a culture of support and openness

Sometimes employees fear being labeled ‘difficult’ if they ask for what they need. There’s also a fear of opening yourself up to discrimination. This is true for those with visible and invisible disabilities, but the latter also often find themselves met with disbelief. After all, they don’t display tangible proof of a disability. 

Awareness needs to be raised from the start of any employee’s employment. Most companies share onboarding documents to welcome new hires and this often includes a handbook. To begin fostering a culture of openness and support, these handbooks and materials should highlight visible and invisible disabilities. 

Allow greater flexibility around work structures

If there’s one thing the pandemic has shown us, it’s how a flexible work structure is more than feasible across the board. While employees must advocate for themselves and ask for the work structure they desire, employers also must be willing to work with their staff to accommodate these different approaches. 

This includes adjusted work hours or flexible start and end times as well as varied communication methods. For instance, if an employee with a learning disability struggles with their working memory, their instructions can be emailed rather than shared vocally. A 2020 Job Accommodation Network (JAN) survey revealed that workplace accommodations aren’t just low-cost but impact the business positively too.

Create inclusion and belonging programs that ensure the needs of all employees are met

Similar to cultural sensitivity tracks, businesses can begin to introduce accessibility policies, plans, and training. Not only will such a tactic encourage dialogue, but it’ll ensure that all employees are trained to support all kinds of disabilities. A dedicated resource to disability can become an empowering point of support for employees with disabilities as well as allies.

Other methods of supporting such programs include ensuring mental health coverage in the company’s insurance plan and other similar free services that can benefit the entire workforce.

In 2018, an Accenture study found that businesses that adopt the best disability hiring and inclusion practices are likely to achieve 28% higher revenue, double their net income, and witness a 30% higher economic profit than their competition.  

This goes to show that an inclusive workplace can not only attract new and diverse talent with its culture of openness but also go beyond improving the individual lives of its employees. 

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