By Haleigh Duncan
Throughout the day, the majority of people are glued to screens—whether it’s their work computer, their Facebook app, or their TV. What celebrities are wearing, the newest battle scene from Game of Thrones, the optically illusory* striped dress; our culture is obsessed with consuming information visually. That can be a real problem when it comes to invisible disabilities.
What do we mean by that? An increasing number of people live with disabilities that other people can’t tell they have just by looking at them. For example, someone may look young, healthy, and happy, but experience chronic pain, exhaustion, and inconvenience from living with Crohn’s Disease. An equally able-bodied-looking person might be struggling to overcome anxiety and panic attacks that periodically prevent them from participating in public activities. Many of these people do not use wheelchairs or walking canes that would visually ‘signal’ to us that they have a disability; instead, their disabilities are ‘hidden’, or invisible.
Here are five things you can do for people with invisible disabilities in the workplace—whether you’re a boss or a co-worker:
1. Never assume someone is ‘able-bodied’—and definitely don’t insist that they are.
It doesn’t matter how young or tall or muscular someone looks– anyone may have chronic pain, chronic fatigue, neurological divergence, or other inhibiting symptoms. Remember that even if someone looks happy or calm at work, people with invisible disabilities strive to maintain a persona of ‘professionalism’ even when they may be experiencing pain or discomfort. They do not usually cry, scream, or grimace because they have practiced pain management and pain tolerance– not because they don’t experience physical or mental distress.
2. Understand that accommodations are a necessity, not a privilege.
People with disabilities, invisible or otherwise, are protected under federal law. When someone with a disability requests accommodation, some people may feel like the accommodated person has received an unearned advantage. Asking for and using accommodations can be stressful, embarrassing, and ridden with guilt for many people with disabilities, who often avoid using them as much as they are able. It’s important to remember that people with invisible disabilities are at a disadvantage that is balanced by their accommodations.
3. Learn more.
If your coworker was comfortable enough to trust you with their disability status, or if an employee disclosed theirs to you: read up. Becoming knowledgeable about what they’re going through can help you empathize with them, collaborate with them, and understand that many people have similar experiences with their own disabilities.
4. Allow people with invisible disabilities to provide their own solutions.
No matter what you’ve heard about a given disability in the past, the best expert on someone’s disability is the person who lives with it. Your coworkers or employees will appreciate your understanding, and they will be much more productive and satisfied at work if they can implement the strategies that they know work for them. Read more about typical job accommodations.
5. Advocate. Advocate. Advocate.
Take advantage of opportunities to educate yourself whenever you can—and share your knowledge with your coworkers, especially if someone is disparaging or questioning another person’s invisible disability. If you have an invisible disability yourself, examine how that identity plays out in the workplace, and how your situation can be improved. If you’re comfortable, sharing your disability status can be a powerful way to destigmatize invisible illness and make your peers feel safe enough to be ‘out’ in the workplace.
Those living with invisible disabilities like PTSD, arthritis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, or another illness, would prefer to have complete control over their lives than to disclose their ability and ask for accommodation. In the end, some don’t, and some do. It’s important in these cases to be as supportive as possible and let our coworkers know that they are a valuable part of our workplace—each and every day.
For more resources on disabilities and the workplace, visit CareerOneStop’s section on workers with disabilities!
*It’s blue and black!
Haleigh Duncan is a web content writer for CareerOneStop. As a recent Macalester College graduate, her commitment to equity shows in all of her writing and data curation. She lives in Minneapolis with an invisible disability and a visible obsession with her cat.