How to Accommodate Employees With Invisible Disabilities

Millions of people have invisible disabilities such as diabetes or chronic pain. Accommodating these hidden disabilities opens up your talent pool and benefits your business.

The search for top talent is fierce. And some of your most qualified job candidates may have disabilities. Creating accessibility for all workers is not only an act of compliance but also care. Plus, it will strengthen your workforce, says Linda Williams, founder and CEO of the Invisible Disability Project.

Your organization should accommodate all disabilities—including those that aren’t immediately apparent. “An invisible disability, also often referred to as non-visible, hidden, non-apparent or unseen, can be defined as any physical, mental or emotional impairment that goes largely unnoticed by an outside observer,” Williams explains.

Invisible disabilities include a spectrum of illnesses and disorders, including severe allergies, anxiety, asthma, autism, cancer, chronic pain, depression, digestive diseases, fibromyalgia, migraines, PTSD and more.

An inclusive workforce must accommodate workers with disabilities, but millions of employees are overlooked because of the hidden nature of their illnesses. They either keep the illness to themselves, or others fail to take their conditions seriously. That’s why it’s crucial for a company’s leadership to be aware of invisible disabilities and make accommodations for employees who have them.

Here are steps you can take to help those with invisible disabilities be more comfortable—and productive—at work:

Prioritize inclusion.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for any worker with a disability, visible or not. But there are benefits that go beyond compliance. In a tight labor market, you can’t afford to have a workplace that millions of potential candidates find unappealing.

There are other benefits as well. Companies that hire and promote individuals with disabilities have twice the net income of their peers and get a reputation boost to boot, a recent report from Accenture reveals. 

Make it easy for employees to request accommodations.

By law, you can’t require employees to disclose whether they have a disability, and it’s up to them to inquire about accommodations. Still, you can create an environment where they feel comfortable asking. That starts with having a clearly articulated policy in the company handbook or on your website.

All employees should learn about this policy as part of the onboarding process, and managers should have training on how to handle accommodation requests. But training shouldn’t stop there.

“The acts of management can create liability, but you don’t want your non-management employees saying discriminatory or offensive things to someone with a disability,” says Joyce Smithey, managing partner at Smithey Law Group, an employment law firm. “The message that you want to send to employees is: We’re going to do this right.”

Consider each case individually.

Deciding appropriate accommodations will depend on each individual’s disability, and many can be put into place with relatively little or no cost, according to LaWanda Cook, an extension faculty associate with the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. Collaborate with the employee to find a solution that works for the person and the workplace, she suggests. An employee with a hearing impairment, for example, may require a voice-to-text adapter on their phone, while someone with a mental illness might need a flexible schedule to accommodate therapy appointments. If an employee with diabetes has to be able to eat when their blood sugar is low and food isn’t typically allowed in the work area, an exception may be made. An employee with a back impairment who needs to alternate between sitting and standing could be allowed shorter but more frequent breaks.

“The best question to ask when a request is made is, ‘What can we do to help you do your job well?’” Cook says.

Provide ongoing support.

Over time, it might be necessary to tweak the accommodations if the individual’s health needs change or their professional responsibilities evolve. Cook suggests checking in regularly with employees to make sure that the accommodation still meets their needs.

“Maybe it’s a job-share or permission to work from home,” says Jess Stainbrook, executive director of the Invisible Disabilities Association. “There are a lot of options these days, given our ability to do work and engage online.”

Don’t assume that an individual’s disability is a limit on their growth potential. Instead, consider whether you can implement accommodations that will allow that employee the same access to training and skills development for career advancement that other workers have.

Promote a culture of awareness.

To create an inclusive environment, make sure that your employee training on inclusion educates staff about invisible disabilities and the challenges that individuals with them face, Williams says. In addition, make sure disability, like gender or race, is specifically mentioned in your company’s diversity statement.

Company leadership must also send the message, via its words and actions, that it is supportive of individuals with invisible disabilities and committed to both hiring and promoting such workers. Consider supporting disability awareness days or creating affinity groups recognizing diversity.

“This is a call for companies to arrive at the inclusion, diversity and equity conversation in a new way,” Williams says. “Reach beyond the assimilation and compliance mindset and recognize the value disabled people bring to the workplace. When an organization can achieve this, a cultural shift will happen.”

Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
Battling the Social Stigma

There are three main reasons people with invisible disabilities don’t disclose them, especially in a workplace they fear isn’t inclusive.

1. Discrimination: Individuals with a disability often worry that they’ll face discrimination from their boss or co-workers. Even if others are outwardly supportive, unconscious bias and incorrect assumptions can create problems.

An individual with PTSD, for example, might worry that their manager won’t trust them with more stressful assignments, or someone with depression might worry they’ll be treated as if they’re less reliable.

“There’s a fear of retribution or that they’ll lose their job if they disclose an invisible disability,” says Jess Stainbrook of the Invisible Disabilities Association.

2. Credibility: Another concern among workers with invisible disabilities is that if they do disclose their challenge, others won’t fully understand or believe them. Sadly, many individuals know this from experience. Co-workers who can’t see their peer’s migraines or colitis might resent accommodations such as a flexible schedule or access to a private bathroom.

3. Privacy: Fully explaining an invisible disability often requires detailed disclosures about a person’s health and personal life. It can also prompt in-depth questions from even well-meaning co-workers that those with a disability may prefer to avoid. Many individuals feel more comfortable keeping any information about their disability to themselves.