05 Jul 2022
In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability. Has an image popped into your head of what they might look like?
Most people strongly associate disability with wheelchairs, but in reality, just 2% of disabled people are wheelchair users. Furthermore, 80% of disabilities are invisible altogether.
So, what are invisible disabilities?
Also known as hidden illnesses or hidden disabilities, they are disabilities that are not easily visible or immediately apparent. They can hinder a person’s abilities in the world of work, education and social environments but the nature of the disability makes it difficult for other people to recognise. This can cause issues as some people struggle to understand these disabilities without physical evidence of them.
There are many types of invisible disabilities, here are just a few:
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Reduced Sight
Our own bias
How many of you have seen someone parking in a disabled spot and thought “they look healthy, why are they taking that spot?”
It is likely they have an invisible disability, or a disability that is not immediately obvious to you from one glance. For example, not everyone with a hearing disability wears a hearing aid and not everyone with a visual disability carries a cane. Most of our preconceptions and stereotypes of how disability ‘should look’ are very narrow and inaccurate.
The sunflower lanyard scheme is a way to indicate an invisible disability discreetly. It was launched in 2016 and has been adopted globally with lots of major brands and NHS trusts adopting it. They produce lanyards, badges and bracelets that can be worn to indicate a person has an invisible disability.
How might invisible disabilities present themselves in the workplace?
Here are a couple of examples:
Jess is 24 and has type one diabetes, which she's had since she was seven years old. She hasn't told anyone at her work because she's scared that they think she brought it on herself from eating too much sugar, even though it's a myth. Jess goes to the toilet frequently throughout the day to check her blood glucose levels and to administer insulin injections. She isn't allowed to take a lunch until 2pm, which is six hours after eating breakfast. As a result, she frequently suffers from hypoglycaemia. That means low blood sugar levels and is often seen having a sugary snack at her desk to fix it. People just assume that she has a sweet tooth.
Jacob works in a retail store and has Crohn's disease. As a result of past surgery, Jacob has a stoma, and now has a colostomy bag. One day at work, Jacob notices his bag is full and he needs to change it in the toilet. He wants to use the disabled toilet to do this because he is scared other people will notice if he uses the general toilets, but Jacob finds that the disabled toilet is full of storage boxes and bags. When he asks his employer why this is they reply: “We don't have any disabled people who work here. So, we use the toilet for storage.”
Why do you think Jess and Jacob chose not to speak up about their conditions?
Often people are scared to talk about their disability because of the language that surrounds it and the negative perceptions, particularly in the workplace. For example, when you ask people to “disclose a disability”, the same language is used as when disclosing a criminal record.
Instead, when we start talking about disability, we need to start thinking about positive and people-first language. We need to encourage open and supportive conversations about disability and frame the language positively. For example, when you're talking about someone with autism, don’t say they're ‘suffering’ from autism rather that they have autism, because autism is part of their identity and not always seen as an infliction.
When we talk about people-first language, we're talking about the ability to have conversations with people in which you see the person before the condition.
A good example of this is: Jenny has autism, rather than Jenny is autistic. It’s the little things or use of language and tone that allow people to feel a bit more comfortable in terms of how they communicate. Trying to eliminate generalisations, stereotypes and labels goes a long way to enabling people to feel more comfortable having conversations about their disabilities.
However, there is also some debate between person – first language and identity first language ; the difference between saying person with a disability and disabled person. While person first language implies that they are a person first and have a disability second, there are people who prefer disability person, as their disability affects them as a person.
This generally comes down to personal preference, if you aren’t sure of a persons preference, then you should ask.
Top tips for being more inclusive of invisible disabilities:
- Don’t expect people to disclose or prove their invisible illness or disability. Everyone is entitled to choose if they wish to disclose their disability or chronic illness.
- Broaden your understanding - build your awareness of what invisible disabilities exist as this will help you to become more inclusive of people with invisible disabilities.
- If someone does share their invisible disability with you, reply without judgement. “Thank you for telling me”.
- Remember that different people need disabled spaces.
- If you say the wrong thing, approach the mistake as a learning experience.
- Don’t judge people by their outward mobility.
- Rethink what acceptable behaviour or styles of working looks like to you. Are you unwittingly putting neurodiverse candidates or colleagues at a disadvantage?
There are simple ways to be more mindful about how we include people who have illnesses and conditions that we can't see. It really starts with broadening your knowledge and accepting people's needs are different; you can’t tell someone’s individual requirements just by looking at them.