How to Support Hidden Disabilities in the Workplace

December 3, 2018
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Government statistics tell us that there are around 13.3 million people with disabilities living in the UK. They also tell us that there is an estimated 3.8 million people with a disability in employment.

As these statistics are quite high, so are the chances that you employ someone who has a disability. However, it’s also likely that you might not be aware of it. 96% of illnesses are invisible, meaning that you cannot see them and, usually, you wouldn’t know about them unless you were told.

People are often not forthcoming with their disabilities, often due to a perceived stigma or lack of acceptance and understanding. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to encourage these people to ask you for help, so you can support hidden disabilities in your workplace.


What is an Invisible Disability?

An invisible disability is one that isn’t easily visible and immediately apparent. Invisible disabilities, also known as hidden illnesses/disabilities, can hinder a person’s abilities in the world of work, education, and social environments. Although the illness creates challenges for the person who has it, and can dramatically affect how they perform in everyday life, the nature of the disability makes it difficult for other people to recognise.

As well as not recognising the disability, people also struggle to understand it if they can’t see any physical evidence of it. This lack of understanding leads to many people keeping quiet about their disability.

Man with diabetes testing his glucose levels at work

Examples of Hidden Disabilities

While this list is by no means exhaustive, some examples of hidden disabilities are:

  • Autism.
  • Brain injuries.
  • Chron’s Disease.
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Cystic Fibrosis.
  • Depression, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and other mental health conditions.
  • Diabetes.
  • Epilepsy.
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • HIV/AIDS.
  • Insomnia.
  • Learning difficulties, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and language processing disorder.
  • Lupus.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis.
  • Visual and auditory disabilities. These may be invisible if someone wears contact lenses and a hearing aid, for example.

How Might Hidden Disabilities Present Themselves in the Workplace?

Because hidden disabilities aren’t immediately obvious, it’s difficult to know what’s going on behind the scenes or when someone is suffering. Struggles may present themselves in a variety of ways. For example:

Jess

Jess is 24 and has Type 1 Diabetes, which she’s had since she was seven years old. She hasn’t told anybody at her work because she’s scared that they’ll think she brought it on herself from eating too much sugar, even though it’s a myth. Jess goes to the toilet frequently throughout the day to check her blood glucose levels and to administer insulin injections. She isn’t allowed to take her lunch until 2pm, which is six hours after eating her breakfast. As a result, she frequently suffers from Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels) and is often seen having a sugary snack at her desk to fix it. People just assume that she has a sweet tooth.

Jacob

Jacob works in a retail store and has Chron’s Disease. As a result of past surgery, Jacob has a stoma and now has a colostomy bag. One day at work, Jacob notices his bag is full and needs to change it in the toilet. He wants to use the disabled toilet to do this because he’s scared other people will notice if he uses the general toilets. Jacob finds that the disabled toilet is full of storage boxes and bags. When he asks his employer why this is, she replies “We don’t have any disabled people who work here, so we use that toilet for storage”.


How Can I Accommodate for Invisible Disabilities in My Workplace?

Whilst the above examples are fictional, these illnesses are real and such stories are likely to exist for many people in many workplaces. People are often scared to tell others about their illnesses and think that telling people and asking for help won’t actually make a difference.

If your workplace acknowledges hidden disabilities and shows support for them, then it will make it easier for someone to disclose their illness and ask for help. Furthermore, under the Equality Act 2010, you must make reasonable workplace adjustments to accommodate people with disabilities. Therefore, it’s crucial that you implement measures that show your acknowledgement of hidden disabilities.

Be Open to Requests

By law, an employee with a disability is entitled to tell you what adjustments they need and you must accommodate the request. However, this is difficult to implement if an employee isn’t forthcoming with their disability.

To counteract this, you should make it clear that if anybody requires adjustments to their working method or environment then you’ll always be happy to accommodate it. Include this in your induction for new starters and consider displaying resources to make it known. You should also speak to employees about the availability of flexitime, as this is useful for hospital appointments or if somebody needs an extra couple of hours at home before they come into work.

Be Proactive with Requests

If an employee has placed a request, such as the desire for a standing desk to help with their back problems, then you shouldn’t just listen to it and forget about it. Be proactive and ensure that you fulfil their request in a reasonable amount of time. In doing so, you show other employees that you’re open to requests and take your responsibilities towards hidden disabilities seriously.

Baristas working in a coffee shop

Display Signs that State “Not every disability is visible”

The ‘not every disability is visible’ sign is a great way to show your support for hidden disabilities. Many supermarkets and venues have started displaying the signs, which acknowledge that disabilities come in all shapes and sizes and aren’t just restricted to wheelchair users.

Display these on all disabled toilets in your workplace to show that you’re taking a step in the right direction to support hidden disabilities.

Provide Staff Training

Ensure that all members of staff understand different disabilities and that not every disability is visible. A lack of understanding may lead to a member of staff making an insulting joke and not realising the damaging implications of what they’ve said.

Work colleagues socialising

Celebrate Awareness Days and Weeks

To help increase people’s understanding, you should celebrate awareness days and weeks, such as Invisible Disabilities Week. Plan lots of activities for them, such as a bake sale to raise money for charities, and consider inviting people into your workplace who can speak about hidden disabilities.

Change the Language Surrounding Disabilities

Often, people feel scared to talk about their disability because of the language that surrounds it and the negative perceptions. For example, we ask people to ‘disclose a disability’ just like you’d ‘disclose’ a criminal record.

Encourage conversations about disabilities and always frame your language positively. For example, don’t say that somebody is ‘suffering from Autism’; say that they have Autism.

Have a Suggestions Box

Set up an anonymous suggestions box that people can place their ideas into. By making this anonymous, you give people the opportunity to talk about what adjustments would help them, and their disability, in the work environment. Furthermore, it puts no pressure on people to tell you about their illness.


Having a hidden illness in the workplace can be daunting, especially if there are no adjustments or measures in place to accommodate disabilities. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you support disabled workers and have reasonable adjustments in place for both visible and hidden illnesses.


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