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Invisible Disabilities go Misunderstood at Work and School

“Stadiums fill up with people to see what’s going to happen between the lines. But life isn’t only about visible realities. There are invisible and unseen nuances… things that shape us into who we are.” – Orel Hershiser, former major league baseball player

Invisible disabilities span a wide variety of symptoms and conditions, including chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, brain injuries, mental illnesses, and more. The disability, and the suffering that goes with it, may easily go unnoticed.

And so, dealing with the disability may involve an ongoing struggle for acceptance and support. Obvious signs of disability can lead to poor treatment from others, but also to benefits such as legal protection. When a disability is invisible, people must disclose their condition to receive accommodation. Trisha Cooke, case manager at Neuro-Rehab Services Inc., who assists those with disabilities on rehabilitation teams, explains:

“Invisible disabilities can have a big impact on the individual, as they are often perceived as disingenuous, lazy, or incompetent.  This can be demoralizing for the individual, who may be pushing through challenges to the best of their ability but are being perceived as otherwise.  Oftentimes, the individual feels misunderstood, criticized, or hopeless.”

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Gwen Kakouris, an occupational therapist at Innovative Occupational Therapy Services works with people with invisible disabilities. She says that many report a lack of understanding from others, especially when a person returns to work after a disability-related absence. Many of her clients are “fearful of disclosing health conditions for fear of repercussions at work.”

Disclosing an invisible disability can pose a risk for employees or students, as they may face prejudice, disbelief, or negative evaluation from others. This “predicament of disclosure,” where an individual must weigh the risks against potential benefits, can result in people hiding their condition. Registered social worker Melissa Sulit explains that there’s a difference between individuals not being given the opportunity to disclose their disability and not feeling comfortable disclosing their disability:

 “For example, when I was completing my undergraduate degree, professors would request that students with disabilities registered with the Access Centre line up at the front of the lecture hall to submit their paperwork. This process resulted in individuals with disabilities having to reveal their diagnosis to their peers, which they may not have been comfortable sharing due to concerns relating to privacy or fears of how they may be perceived or treated by others.”

As for accommodations in the workplace, Kakouris says that large companies have the infrastructure in place to grant structured return-to-work programs for workers with disabilities, but smaller companies lack the funding and resources, creating additional barriers to disclosure. Working with a human resources team not directly involved in day-to-day operations at a larger company can ease the process of disclosure, as opposed to revealing sensitive information about a condition to a co-worker or employer.

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The option of receiving more sick days or mental health days would help support those with invisible disabilities. Sulit elaborates:

“Providing individuals with paid sick days and mental health days allows people to make decisions in the best interest of their health, as opposed to what is financially feasible. Sick days and mental health days allow individuals to make their health a priority.”

Cooke offers the following insight on how to support a person with an invisible disability:

“A person with invisible disabilities needs to feel respected and valuable. Having an open dialogue, listening and trying to understand, offering small and meaningful accommodations (without undue hardship), and following up are all important in supporting the employee.”

– Jenna Zorik, Contributing Writer

Image Credits:
Feature: Alex Ivashenko
 at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First: Tim Gouw
 at Unsplash, Creative Commons
Second: Samuel Austin
at Unsplash, Creative Commons