Creating a culture inclusive of invisible disabilities


Because so many disabilities are invisible to most, employees with disabilities must deliberately decide when, whether, and with whom to share their disability status.


When leaders think of a person with a disability, they often picture visible examples, as naturally, it is difficult to conceptualise what we can’t see. But not all disabilities are readily apparent. Invisible disabilities are conditions that impact an individual’s daily life but are not readily apparent to others, such as mental health conditions, neurological disorders, autoimmune illnesses, neurodivergence, learning disabilities, or any number of other disorders.


An estimated 9.5 million people across the UK live with an invisible health condition, meaning one in seven employees are managing a medical condition alongside their jobs. Whilst the lack of sensitivity to someone’s invisible disability can create misunderstandings and frustration, the opposite approach of focusing on individual abilities and providing a safe and inclusive environment for everyone leads to a workplace culture where teams can flourish, and employee loyalty and performance improve.


Seeing the invisible


According to The Center for Talent Innovation’s “Disabilities and Inclusion” study, only 39 percent of employees with hidden disabilities have disclosed them to their manager, and even fewer have disclosed them to their teams (24 percent) and human resources (21 percent). Employees have many reasons for hiding their disabilities - they fear teasing or harassment, they worry their relationships will change and many are concerned about being seen as less capable, and that their career progress will stall as a result.


Invisible disabilities can impair the ability to work under normal conditions or participate in social activities at work, as employees may have limitations with typical work activities, and it can be difficult for co-workers to acknowledge, recognise and understand the disability. Research shows that a large part of the workforce probably has an undisclosed disability and even if leaders don’t know who they are, creating a more inclusive culture at work will undoubtedly benefit their teams. Creating awareness and broadening understanding and knowing that not all disabilities are noticeable are the first steps in improving inclusive workplace cultures.


Breaking down the barriers


According to a Harvard Business Review study that calculated the value of disclosing these hidden aspects of employees’ identity, employees with disabilities who disclose to most people they interact with are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than employees with disabilities who have not disclosed to anyone (65 percent vs 27 percent), and they are less likely to regularly feel anxious (18 percent vs 40 percent) or isolated (8 percent vs 37 percent).


As leaders and organisations set out on the journey to create diverse and inclusive workplaces, invisible disabilities need to be identified, discussed, and considered. Because when leaders focus on individual abilities, with or without disabilities, the employees have the assurance of fairness and equity. And when leaders provide all employees with the chance to succeed, they are creating a more engaged, committed, loyal and high-performing culture.


Whilst there is no silver bullet solution, creating a culture of inclusivity can help employees to take steps toward disclosure. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.