Did you know that up to 70% of disabled people in the UK and Ireland have ‘Invisible’ or ‘Hidden’ impairment? Invisible disabilities make up a significant percentage of the disability population and yet they are one of the least represented groups of people in our society.
“Not everyone knows I’ve got anxiety and depression”
In the Republic of Ireland, there is only one known registered organisation that represents Invisible Disabilities, and it was only established in August 2019 known as “Invisible Disability Ireland”. One of the biggest fears stated by individuals with a hidden disability is that they won’t be believed, followed by the inevitable grief of being told “but you look fine”.
“I often feel that living with this condition… people don’t believe me”
The main reason behind the lack of understanding or difficulty in believing that someone may have a hidden disability is that many people think the word “disability” means people who require a wheelchair or a walker. In reality, however, there is much more to disability than meets the eye.
What do Hidden Disabilities have in common?
• One is unable to “see” the disability.
• There are no “visible” supports to indicate a disability such as canes, wheelchairs, use, or sign language used.
• It is a permanent disability that they cope with on a daily basis.
• The disability may be managed through medication or behaviour such as in the case of diabetes, asthma, or epilepsy.
Janice Knight, HR Director for Workplace Solutions offered great insight into hidden disabilities from her personal experience.
“It doesn’t define me, it’s not who I am as a person, but it is something that is part of me and will be for the rest of my life. My condition doesn’t get in my way of day-to-day life. I was unexpectedly extremely ill, it was 10 years ago, and I got through it but I have been left with the scars and the effects for the rest of my life. I had Ulcerative Colitis resulting in extreme surgeries. It has given me great strength, I have become more accepting of the people, I have become more compassionate towards people. People most of the time are ashamed of disclosing their disability and I hate calling it a disability. It’s a condition. We need to change our mindsets; the way we think about those conditions and the way we treat those people with them. For example, let’s not label it a disabled toilet. Let’s call it an accessible toilet, because people need access to it and not every disability is visible.
In response to the question of ways to raise awareness about hidden disabilities, Janice added, “This is actually one great way, by me sharing my story. People may come forward and share their stories. They should not feel that they are alone battling with some condition. They should know that their lives matter and that whatever condition they are facing with does not define them as a person”
It’s never an easy subject for individuals faced with these conditions. In the workplace, disclosing personal issues can be embarrassing and stigmatizing especially if co-workers perceive any additional accommodations provided as unfair, given the invisibility of the illness. The disabled population is the one minority group that any one of us could become part of at any time. If there were ever a time to start treating people the way you want to be treated…this is it. It’s time to rethink disabilities in the workplace.
As an initiative Bidvest Noonan ED&I council is launching an ED&I pack over the coming days.