Paying attention to hidden disabilities

Most business owners are aware of the importance of creating inclusive policies and providing access arrangements for disabled workers. However, some disabilities go unnoticed in the workplace because they are ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’. Agency Central estimates that 96% of illnesses are invisible, and around 60% of those suffering with a chronic invisible illness are of typical working age (18-64).

However, according to a recent survey, around 50% of public service workers surveyed said that they felt that there was actually more stigma attached to invisible disabilities, and this rose to 60% of those in the private sector. Employers still have a duty of care towards employees with invisible disabilities, so it’s important that they are fully understood.

Employer duties and legislation

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 originally covered discrimination against those with disabilities across the UK. It was later replaced with the Equality Act 2010 in most parts of the UK, though the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as amended remains in place in Northern Ireland. These Acts protect UK workers with a disability, defined as any physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term impact on normal daily activities.

Employers have a responsibility to avoid and prevent discrimination based on disability, and make reasonable adjustments for an employee with a disability, provided that they know, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the worker has a disability and is at a disadvantage because of it.

What is an invisible or hidden disability?

An invisible disability is any condition that limits a person’s abilities, activities or movements but is not obvious to the outside world. This can include chronic illnesses, long-term conditions, and both physical and mental health issues.

Examples of invisible disabilities

There are many hidden disabilities. They include, but are not limited to, issues such as:

• Chronic fatigue syndrome
• Fibromyalgia
• Cystic fibrosis
• Epilepsy
• Depression
• Anxiety disorders
• Bipolar disorder
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
• Autism spectrum disorder
• Diabetes
• Arthritis
• Osteoporosis
• Asthma

How invisible disabilities present themselves in the workplace

Hidden disabilities can present themselves in many ways. An invisible disability may be the root cause of frequent absences, occasional underperformance at work, or a person’s inability to take on specific tasks or work in specific situations. They are often misunderstood and other workers may be quick to blame the person if the disability is not obvious.

How to accommodate invisible disabilities in the workplace

There are many ways that employers can strive to accommodate invisible disabilities in the workplace. It starts with banishing stigma and encouraging employees to disclose invisible disabilities, even in sensitive cases such as depression and anxiety. These are two conditions that, in their many forms, can result in frequent absences, even though the employee is capable and even eager to do their work. In many cases, it might support the employee’s needs and hugely increase productivity if arrangements to work from home, either regularly or as the need arises, can be put in place.

There are, however, many different types of invisible disabilities, with many different solutions. Diabetic employees may need accommodations to allow them to eat at the right times, test blood sugar levels frequently, and take their medication (which generally needs to be injected). Someone suffering from fibromyalgia may need regular rest breaks and accommodations to allow them to do whatever they need to in order to manage physical pain. Workers with autism spectrum disorder may need different types of accommodations, depending on how their condition presents.

Ultimately, supporting workers with invisible disabilities involves being willing to listen, adapt and innovate. Every worker is different, even those with the same disability. As a business owner or supervisor, it’s vital that you are able to provide each employee with the accommodations they need to be a valuable member of your team.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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