Considerations for Supporting and Accommodating Invisible Disabilities

Published February 1, 2021

Invisible disabilities are just that: disabilities that people may not easily perceive by looking at or interacting with a person. However, many common disabilities fall under this category. Invisible (or hidden) disabilities can range from the physical to the neurological to the cognitive. Many common (and not-so-common) disabilities don't manifest in ways that are immediately obvious to others.

No matter what kind of invisible disability someone has, one thing is certain: all people with invisible disabilities deserve support just as much as those with visible ones. The impact or validity of a disability isn't dependent on others' perception of it.

Understanding invisible disabilities

"Not everything is what it seems. Just because you cannot see a person’s disability does not mean it does not significantly affect their day-to-day functioning," Access Living writer Ashley Eisenmenger, a blind woman, explained. In other words, appearances do not necessarily tell us everything about what someone is experiencing on the inside. As she wrote, people with invisible disabilities can benefit from accommodations that help them maximize their abundant abilities.

Invisible disabilities and the law

People with invisible disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under ADA Section 12111, people with invisible disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations. According to the law, these may include:

"(A) making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and

(B) job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities."

If this sounds intimidating, please keep in mind that employers may be able to fulfill this obligation using less-expensive accommodations available. In addition, some accommodations do not even require money for implementation at all. They may involve something as simple as changing the room that an employee works in to a quieter one.

The ADA, section 12112, also declares that it is illegal to attempt to ask potential employees if they have a disability. When employees already are employed, employers may ask about disability status, ask about the nature and severity of the disability, or require medical examinations only when it is "shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity." In other words, employers should only ask or require anything disability-related when it is absolutely essential to the matter at hand.

Accommodating and supporting people with invisible disabilities

Disability inclusion website Understood offers a multitude of suggestions that can help people with invisible disabilities succeed.

Understood advises that employers review the accommodations that their company provides and ensure that it follows the ADA. The resource also notes that companies should make sure that mental health coverage is covered in their insurance plan, as "out-of-network providers can be costly." They should promote the free services this coverage offers.

HRDive shared a similar recommendation from David Fram of the National Employment Law Institute. Fram said that "if an employee is struggling to complete essential functions, an HR supervisor can start a conversation by asking a legally sound question like, 'how can I help you?'"

Employers can also tailor their company culture towards promoting inclusivity. Understood stated that companies should "communicate disability inclusion efforts to the whole company."

Some potential ways to accomplish an inclusive environment include the creation of an Employee Resource Group (ERG), as Understood wrote. An ERG could serve as an "empowering forum for employees with disabilities and their colleagues who are allies to network and raise issues." In addition, companies can generate policies that prevent and punish discrimination. They also can reassure employees that they will not be penalized for disclosing their disability or needing accommodations.

In conclusion

When employers recognize that people with disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, they can set out to make sure that all employees with disabilities feel valued. Simple accommodations, as well as additions to company cultures, can ensure that employees receive the support they deserve.