Understanding Non-apparent Disabilities in the Workplace
Last updated: April 2023
About 1 in 4 American adults live with a disability. Many people living with a disability are able to work and do. For those with an "invisible" illness, or one that's not immediately obvious to the outside world, the decision to disclose their condition can be challenging. Only a fraction of employees report their disability to an employer.1-3
Living with a non-apparent disability can affect people in the workforce in many ways. Employees can face discrimination, judgment from coworkers, and barriers in their careers.2,3
However, workplaces can build a more inclusive environment. By doing so, all parties benefit.
What is a non-apparent or invisible disability?
A disability is any condition of the mind or body that limits participation in the world. Disabilities can affect a person’s:1
- Mental health
- Social relationships
Some disabilities may not be visible or apparent to others. An invisible disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that other people cannot see. This type of non-apparent disability can impact senses, movements, or activity. Examples include:2,4
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Brain injuries
- Chronic pain
- Chronic fatigue
- Hearing impairments
- Learning differences
- Mental health disorders
- Vision impairments
What do we know about disabilities in the workforce?
About 30 percent of white-collar employees have a disability. Most of those workers have a condition that is not visible to others.2,3
Only about 3 percent of employees report a disability to an employer.2,3
According to the Department of Labor, people with disabilities are less likely to be employed than those with no disabilities.5
How non-apparent disabilities affect people in the workforce
Invisible disabilities impact people in the workforce in many ways. People with a disability may or may not disclose their condition to an employer. Many choose not to disclose their disability out of fear. There is a fear of facing discrimination or not being believed.2,3
Stigma surrounding disabilities can impact how people with a disability interact with coworkers. It can affect how you are treated by managers. It can prevent advancing in a career.2,3
Employees with disabilities can face discrimination, harassment, and negative bias. They can also feel excluded from a positive work environment.4
When employers ignore an employee's needs
Ignoring invisible disabilities in the workplace can hurt employees and employers. It can create low morale and toxic relationships. It can affect output and performance. Productivity may drop and even cost an employer money.5
A solution: Build a disability-inclusive culture
An inclusive workplace benefits employers and employees. Strong levels of equality and inclusion are tied to greater productivity, performance, and employee well-being.6
Here are some steps employers can take to build an inclusive workplace:2,4,6
- Offer an open environment for disability disclosure. Communicating inclusion efforts company-wide creates a space for people to feel comfortable disclosing their condition.
- Provide helpful and necessary accommodations.The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requires workplaces to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. That may include a flexible schedule, option to work from home, specialized software, or specialized work space.
- Provide company-wide education and training.Educate all employees on the ADA. Help employees understand what an invisible disability is. This can help reduce judgment and stigma when accommodations are made.
- Offer support and services.This could include offering benefit packages with mental health coverage and wellness programs.
- Make diversity and inclusion a top priority.The commitment to an inclusive workplace should be visible in all areas of a workplace. This includes company communication, hiring, and retention. Make it a priority to hire people with disabilities at all levels.
A supportive and inclusive workplace fosters an environment where all employees can succeed.2
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