Invisible disabilities, as the name suggests, are lifelong impairments that cannot be detected just by looking at a person’s physical state. Examples of invisible disabilities include autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disability, hearing impairment, partial vision-loss and mental health conditions.
It is estimated that if we were to total up the number of people with invisible disabilities, it will outnumber that of people with physical disabilities.
This is unsurprising given the rising number of children diagnosed with autism and learning difficulties all around the world. In addition, there is an upward trend of youths, working adults and the elderly suffering from depression, anxiety disorder and other forms of severe mental health conditions.
With a significant portion of our population having one or multiple forms of invisible disabilities, it is only a matter of time before companies will need to seriously look at making their workplace more inclusive for people with invisible needs.
Beyond Ramps and Braille
Unlike physical disabilities, it is much more difficult to have standardized accessibility features for invisible disabilities. This is because invisible disabilities are spectrum disorders and no one person’s needs are exactly the same as another’s. The second reason is that much of the support required for the person is based on abstract knowledge such as how we communicate and interact with them. Unlike ramps and braille, soft skills like these cannot be universalized as they transcend into cultural and socio-economic considerations.
However, there are some things that we can do that should be applicable across all cultures and workplaces. We call them Universal Accommodations. These rules are not only inclusive for persons with invisible disabilities, they are also useful for persons without disabilities. It helps to create a high-performance culture based on accountability, clarity and effective resource management.
How can we make the Workplace More Inclusive for Invisible Disabilities
(After the Hiring Process)
- Co-workers need to acquire working knowledge on what invisible disabilities are. Having cliched knowledge that every autistic person has photographic memory and is good in math is not only untrue, but also counterproductive in helping the autistic person. Proper knowledge based on scientific reasonings is crucial in enabling proper inclusion.
- Co-workers need to be given time to understand the person’s specific needs.
It takes time to truly understand and develop relationships with people. It will be extra challenging for somebody to understand another person with a different mental model. Hence, co-workers should be well-supported and mentored on how to understand their co-worker with invisible disability. Top down directive from management without proper resourcing to support ground workers is the key reason why inclusion fails.
- Leaders need to set clear ground rules on how meetings will be conducted and what the inclusive modes of communication are such as:
- Work communications to be written rather than spoken. (written instructions helps people with autism and mental health conditions understand and remember things better)
- All work instructions to be written in a systematic, chronological manner.
- Allow the person with invisible disability and other staff if they want, to respond to questions over email or text, after being given time to think about their response. (The demands of spontaneous decision making or thinking-on-the-feet can be stressful for people with learning difficulties, autism and mental health conditions).
- Leaders need to remove cultural barriers that are possible trigger factors to persons with invisible disabilities such as:
- Requesting for last minute work to be done
- Constantly changing work instructions, timelines and the way the work is done.
- Calling for meetings without a clear agenda.
- Ending toxic workplace behaviours such as managers who berate and belittle staff employees and who use sarcasm.(Such behaviours should not be tolerated by anybody including persons without disabilities. However, we want to highlight this point in the context of persons with invisible disabilities who have difficulties deciphering masked speech and less capacity to manage stress).
Whilst some of the tips sound like common sense (for example 4c ‘Calling for meetings without a clear agenda.’), it is not commonly practised at the workplace especially if people are rushing for projects and deadlines. Some industries may not be able to afford the luxury of planning every meeting in advance or giving time for staff to think over things before they respond.
Hence, it is important for leaders and employers to know if it is realistic to create an inclusive environment for invisible disabilities given the nature of their business. For instance, it may be very difficult for doctors to be ‘inclusive’ in the emergency room as quick-thinking and fast responses are needed to save human lives. It may also be highly frustrating for employees working in advertising and PR to implement rules of inclusion because of pressing demands from customers.
The reality is that inclusion takes effort, time and money. It requires people to go the extra mile into thinking for another person whilst juggling their own work demands. It will be a journey filled with many trials and errors but when it is given enough time to blossom, it will help to build a stronger team made of people who are more emotionally intelligent.