What are Invisible Disabilities_

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.

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%).

What are some types of these invisible disabilities, and how do they impact an employee’s relationship to their workplace? As a non-exhaustive list, here are some examples:

  • Chronic Pain: A range of conditions may result in chronic pain, including injuries, back issues, digestive disorders, bone disease, and autoimmune disorders, among others. A person with chronic pain may need a flexible start time, a hybrid working schedule, break time to take medication, and ergonomic settings at a desk to facilitate working processes. To support employees with chronic pain, employers can also help promote and provide free health services that are part of the employee benefit package, such as stress-reduction coaching, ergonomic advisors, IT support, and access to additional health coverage, such as massages, physiotherapy, and exercise therapy.
    • Examples of invisible disabilities that cause chronic pain include fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, back injuries, hyperthyroidism/hypothyroidism and endometriosis, among others.
  • Chronic Fatigue: This type of disability refers to when an individual feels constantly tired, exhausted, or mentally “foggy.” Chronic fatigue may be a disorder itself, or a symptom of another disability. Employees with chronic fatigue may benefit from adjusted work schedules, written communication on job duties so instructions can be re-referred to, ergonomic work settings, and extended work deadlines.
    • Examples of invisible disabilities that include chronic fatigue include HIV/AIDs, sickle-cell anemia, myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), diabetes, chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, and sleep disorders, among others.
  • Mental Illnesses: Mental illness encompasses a wide range of syndromes, and continues to be the most prevalent form of disability among young workers. As the type of mental illness can vary, the impact of mental illness upon an individual’s work can also vary between individuals, and also over time. As an employer, making sure mental health coverage is included in your company insurance plan can be helpful, as can ensuring that mental health days are included under sick day provisions.
    • Examples of mental illnesses include: depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, alcohol and/or among others.
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders: As their name implies, gastrointestinal disorders affect an employee’s digestion and food processing, and impacts may range from minor to debilitating. An employer can support employees with gastrointestinal disorders by ensuring discrete and accessible access to washrooms, installing grab bars and emergency assistance in washrooms, flexible work schedules, and ensuring telework (working from home) options.
    • Examples of digestive disorders include Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, spastic colon, and diverticulitis, among others.
  • Processing disorders: Processing disorders can take various forms, including auditory or sensory, and impact an individual’s ability to receive, analyze, or make sense of information. Employers can ensure that employees with processing disorders have access to a quiet environment to reduce distractions, ensure verbal communication is also available in writing, ensure that non-verbal communication (body language, facial expressions, voice pitch) is clear and consistent, and allowing note taking in meetings.
    • Examples of processing disorders can include full or partial deafness, autism, sensory modulation disorder (SMD), sensory-based motor disorder (SBMD), and sensory discrimination disorder (SDD), among others.

Click here for a more comprehensive list of some invisible disabilities. The Canadian Human Rights Act (the Act) prohibits discrimination in employment on a number of grounds, including disability. 

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 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. Contact us today! 

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