October 9, 2019
by Stacey S. Joseph for ImpactEDI™
Each October, a national campaign that raises awareness about disability employment challenges celebrates the many contributions of American workers with disabilities. National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) dates back to 1945 when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week in October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities, both visible and invisible. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The theme for this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month is “The Right Talent, Right Now.” This year’s theme promotes the value of a diverse workforce that is inclusive of the talents of employees who are living with a disability, and the overall campaign emphasizes the essential role people with disabilities play in America’s economic success.
Below are five things that leaders can all do in commitment to creating and growing an inclusive workplace for employees with invisible disabilities.
1. Incorporate Disability Into Your On-boarding Processes
A formal on-boarding process is essential to providing new employees with the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors they need to become efficient contributing members of your organization. The on-boarding process is the ideal opportunity to educate new employees on company policies and practices related to disability inclusion. This should include any/all accommodation procedures that make our commitment to equal employment opportunity apparent. With disability inclusion being a part of fundamental processes, this will help new employees feel good about the organization. It will also will help them serve the organization better, and will likely encourage self-identification among people with hidden/invisible disabilities. What’s more, it may also make employees more likely to refer their talented job-seeking friends with disabilities to your organization.
2. Don’t Insist, and Never Assume That Someone is ‘Able-Bodied’
One of the major challenges with having an ‘invisible disability’ is that people aren’t able to tell that you have one. In some instances, this might be favorable to the employee. However, it’s important to remember that no matter how young, strong, fit, healthy, or alert someone may look, they may be living with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, neurological divergence, or other inhibiting symptoms. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that people with invisible disabilities exert a lot of effort in order to maintain a persona of ‘professionalism’ even during peak experiences of pain or discomfort. Signs of their discomfort aren’t visible because they have practiced pain management and pain tolerance. We should never insist nor assume that someone is ‘able-bodied.’
3. Sponsor “Lunch and Learn” Series about Physical and ‘Invisible’ Disabilities
October is certainly a great time of year to do this! However, informative “Lunch and Learn” series are a great way to both celebrate the contributions of disabled employees and serve as a teachable moment at any time of year. Simply schedule a date and a disability accommodative location. Recruit external or internal presenters, and invite employees to come and learn about a range of disability-related subjects. Topics can be suggested by employees with disabilities or you can reach out to groups like JAN (Job Accommodation Network). JAN is funded by a contract with the Office of Disability Employment Policy, and can provide you with expert and accurate technical assistance about job accommodations and employment laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act. Topics can include everything from “Managing Diabetes at Work” to “Work-Restructuring” to “How Smartpens Can Help With Managing ADHD at Work.” These type of events are a great way to educate staff in an informal setting, and can serve as a growth opportunity for your organization if you survey attendees after each session to gather feedback and solicit new topic ideas for next year.
4. Understand that Accommodations are a Necessity, Not a Privilege
You may not realize that employees with invisible disabilities 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. As such, other team members may accuse you of showing favoritism. Asking for and using accommodations can be stressful, embarrassing, and ridden with guilt for many people with disabilities. And sometimes employees with invisible disabilities forgo using accommodations as much as they are able. It’s important to remember that like people with physical disabilities, people with invisible disabilities are at a disadvantage that is balanced by their accommodations. Allow them to identify what accommodations work best for them. Also, keep in mind that accommodation(s) allows for the organization to care for the whole individual, so that they can realize their full potential and maximize their contribution.
5. Be an ‘Upstander’
Educating yourself about various ‘invisible disabilities,’ and sharing your knowledge with your coworkers shows your commitment to inclusion. If someone is disparaging or questioning another person’s invisible disability, speak up! If you have an invisible disability yourself, examine how that identity plays out in the workplace, and how your co-workers can work in partnership so that your situation can be improved. If you’re comfortable, sharing your disability status can be a powerful way to de-stigmatize invisible illness and make your peers feel safe enough to be ‘out’ in the workplace. For some colleagues living with invisible disabilities like PTSD, arthritis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, or another illness, they might prefer to have complete autonomy over their lives than to disclose their ability and ask for accommodation. Of course this is their personal choice that should be respected. It’s important in these cases to be as supportive as possible and let coworkers know that they are a valuable part of your workplace—each and every day.