Understanding Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

Understanding Invisible Disabilities in the Workplace

What are invisible disabilities? As the name implies, invisible disabilities are disabilities that are not immediately noticeable. In a society where disabilities are often marked by signage featuring a little white figure in a wheelchair (parking spaces, ramps, electronic doors), a disability that does not have immediately noticeable physical features, behaviours, or assistive devices can challenge our preconceptions of what a disabled person “looks” like.

Invisible disabilities can run the spectrum from learning disabilities, processing disorders, chronic pain, brain injuries, hearing or sight loss, or digestive issues, among many others, and can affect how the individual interacts with the world in a range of ways.

The Canadian Human Rights Act (the Act) prohibits discrimination in employment on a number of grounds, including disability. The Act considers mental or physical disabilities, including drug and alcohol dependence, as disabilities. According to the 2017 Statistics Canada Survey on Canadians with disabilities, one in five (22%) of the Canadian population over the age of 15 – or about 6.2 million individuals – had one or more disabilities. Disabilities related to pain, flexibility, mobility, and mental health were the most common disability types. Among youth (aged 15 to 24 years), mental health-related disabilities were the most prevalent type of disability (8%).

So how do you, as an employer, actually work to concretely support your employees with invisible disabilities in the workplace? 

  1. Focus on building your organization’s awareness of invisible disabilities. This is a great opportunity to leverage organizational leadership to build disability awareness through a targeted awareness campaign, training opportunities, or consistent internal communications. Providing opportunities for disabled and non-disabled employees to build their understanding of disabilities in the workplace, increase their cognitive empathy, and adjust assumptions and perception can help to build a more inclusive office culture.
  2. Work with Human Resources to ensure that your organization has a sufficient accommodations policy for supporting employees with invisible disabilities. Ensure that relevant and affected employees continue to be comprehensively consulted on availability of accommodations, the support request process, and overall access to support.
  3. Celebrate National AccessAbility Week. Celebrated annually from May 20-June 5, Canadian National AccessAbility Week commends the valuable contributions of Canadians with disabilities. It highlights the accomplishments of individuals, communities and workplaces to remove barriers to accessibility and inclusion, and emphasizes the ongoing work we all have to do to counter discrimination against persons with disabilities. Promoting a culture of inclusion, use this event to further educate awareness of invisible disabilities and sustain employee investment in diversity and inclusion initiatives.
  4. Create an employee resource group for employees with disabilities. While building a supportive and inclusive community for employees with disabilities, employee resource groups can help create a corporate culture that is responsive to the needs of employees with disabilities. Additionally, this group can help employees and managers seeking information on best practices, and encourage disclosure by providing a safe environment for employees to speak openly.
  5. Create a strong diversity, equity and inclusion strategy for your organization. Including invisible disability representation in your strategy will be key to creating a more supportive and accommodating workplace. By employing data collection and analysis on the needs of your diverse employees, ensuring that your strategy design matches your organization’s objectives, and effective implementation of the strategy, you can take concrete steps to ensuring a more inclusive workplace for employees with invisible disabilities.

To ensure that your employees with disabilities are fully supported and accommodated in the workplace, the Government of Canada has published a helpful guide for managers and organizations. For more bespoke diversity and equality guidance, contact Canadian Equality Consulting today if you have further questions about how to make your workplace more responsive to the needs of your diverse employees.

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