Assisting Individuals with Invisible Disabilities
By Maureen Hotchner – Published 2021/12/15 at 8:33 pm
Parking Lot Vigilantes Abuse Woman with Invisible Disability.” This was the headline in the January 2, 2015, edition of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Shocking? Yet, this is precisely what happened to 58-year-old Debbie Mizrahi, a brain cancer survivor, who faced abuse from strangers who accused her of faking her disability. It would not be obvious from looking at her, but Debbie suffers short-term memory loss, and has a handicap placard which she relies on in order to find her car. But parking lot vigilantes yelled at her and left nasty notes on her car. Worse still, she returned to her car to find a bent windshield wiper, snapped antenna, and smashed sideview mirrors.
Defining Invisible Disability
Debbie is hardly alone. According to the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA), these types of accusations and abuses are common for people with invisible disabilities. Disabled-World.com defines an invisible, or hidden disability as an umbrella term, “that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. They are not immediately apparent.
“Although the disability creates a challenge for the person who has it, the reality of the disability can be difficult for others to recognize or acknowledge. Others may not understand the cause of the problem, if they cannot see evidence of it in a visible way.”
A Pervasive Problem
According to Accessibility.com:
“Most invisible disability metrics in the U.S. say that roughly as high as 20% (or more) of Americans have an invisible disability. Further, most people who have a disability don’t use obvious assistive technology like a wheelchair or cane.”
It’s more likely, then, to meet someone with a hidden disability than an obvious one. Since employee assistance professionals (EAPs) undoubtedly have cli-ents with hidden disabilities, it stands to reason that EAPs need to be aware of this issue and take measures to help this underserved population.
Disclosure Remains an Issue
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, a landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs.
But despite the added protections, many with invisible disabilities still struggle with the decision whether to disclose the existence of their disability to
“Since employee assistance professionals (EAPs) undoubtedly have clients with hidden disabilities, it stands to reason that EAPs need to be aware of this issue and take measures to help this underserved population.”
their employer (or potential employer). Many opt not to share this, for one reason: fear. Fear of discrimination by their boss or co-workers. Fear about being passed over for the job or for a promotion. Fear of being terminated.
Even upon making the decision to disclose the disability, figuring out the right way to do so brings upon its own challenges. Is it safe? Who do I tell—my immediate supervisor? The HR manager? How will it be received? What if they don’t want to grant an accommodation?
The Spoon Theory
These decisions can be exhausting. Christine Miserandino, of ButYouDontLookSick.com, developed what she calls “spoon theory” to explain how incredibly tiring life can be for those with disabilities. Looking for a way to explain to her friend what it was like to live with an autoimmune disorder, Christine came up with spoons as a metaphor to represent a unit of energy. As Christine explains:
“I start each day with 12 spoons. In the morning after waking up, showering, washing my hair, getting dressed and eating breakfast, I have already used up six of the 12 spoons. When commuting to work, if I do not get a seat on the subway and did not rest well the night before, two more spoons are spent.
“Even though I sit at a desk, I am bone weary by the end of the day. At least three spoons have been used up at work. Once home, I must decide if I have energy left (or a spoon left) to prepare and eat dinner, or just flop into bed exhausted.”
Steps for the EAP to Put into Practice
With those thoughts in mind, the following are four actionable steps that your corporate clients can put into place to support people with disabilities.
* Encourage HR to embed accessibility into every part of their recruitment process as well as your own.
Let people know your company is committed to diversity and inclusion. Consider including this in your own EAP’s mission statement. Promote an environment where it’s easy to request accommodations. Provide a safe place for disclosure. For example, managers at Microsoft realized that not enough people with autism were hired despite clearly having the knowledge and intellect. When they discovered that the problem was the interview process, they sought help from a local autism support organization. Microsoft was able to create an assessment of exercises designed to test team-work and technical skills. The company’s chief accessibility officer stated, “Now we feel confident we haven’t overlooked a strong candidate simply because a common practice doesn’t play to their strengths.”
*Contact the Jobs Accommodation Network.
(JAN), funded by the Department of Labor) JAN will give free, one-on-one consultations, with businesses to give guidance and training assistance for accommodations in the workplace. JAN reports that accommodations cost little to no money, and that even the costliest ones usually do not exceed $500. Go to askjan.org for publications, trainings, and resources. The site has a tab for Employers and one for Individuals. Their Workplace Accommodation Toolkit is a free online resource that shows managers how to create a disability-inclusive workplace. There are sections for recruiters and hiring managers. They even include a section for Role-Play Training Videos and Accompanying Presentations. Ann Hirsh, JAN Associate Director, is in charge of education. JAN has a myriad of courses, most virtual but live training can be arranged. Subscribe to their newsletters. They offer practical advice for every type of accommodation question. JAN is an extraordinary resource.
*Provide unconscious bias training for all employees.
Provide leadership training on how to handle requests for accommodations and conduct an awareness campaign that focuses on understanding and supporting people with disabilities. The goal is to create cognitive empathy to help employees “walk in someone else’s shoes.” The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) is an excellent resource for unconscious bias training. On their web-site, shrm.org, they offer hundreds of courses on this topic alone. They also offer an Implicit Bias Resource Guide. It provides a video, articles, and links to books and research articles. Major universities such as UCLA and Stanford offer these courses to the community. In addition, Microsoft e-lesson: Unconscious Bias (mslearning.microsoft.com) offers a comprehensive course open to the public. Compare that to a one-day training given by training professionals that can cost up to $6,000.
*Start an Employee Resource Group.
This is a platform for members to share their unique experiences, with common interests such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability. ERGs are an excellent way to promote diversity and inclusion with a company. These peer-led groups offer another resource and sources of support for people with dis-abilities. There are six basic steps to creating a successful Employee Resource Group:
*Check with management first as it is important to identify an executive sponsor. Also, you will be requesting a budget to support the activities of the group.
*Evaluate the client company’s needs and identify a resource. For example, is there a group that is underrepresented in your organization? ACCESS
(https://www.accesscommunity.org/node/327) and Pride & Allies (https://americas.societegenerale.com/en/careers/get-know-diversity/pride-allies/) are among the many possibilities.
*Do an employee pulse survey to get feedback on what topics employees are interested in most.
*Once a topic is chosen, develop outreach strategies and generate interest for the group. Reach out to employees through a company newsletter, e-mail blasts, flyers, and inserts and events such as a welcoming breakfast.
*It’s necessary to name the group, set a mission and goals, design the structure, and assign roles or officers within the group.
*Measure success. This is another way of determining if goals were achieved. For example, did we consistently recruit new members each month, did we publish a quarterly newsletter, did we conduct one annual event. And did we form new peer support groups?
A Word on Remote Work
Make working remotely a standard option, even
after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. It may be necessary to work with Human Resources. The lock-downs were a boon for employees with disabilities, who had been requesting this accommodation for decades, often with little success. The ability to work without a daily commute and utilize accommodations in the home was an incredible game changer for many employees with disabilities.
For people with disabilities—especially invisible ones—life can be daunting. By treating them with compassion, empathy, and respect, we can not only make their lives easier, but we can also strengthen our corporate clients’ organizations in the process.
Maureen Hotchner is a licensed mental health professional, specializing in Workplace Mental Health. Her behavioral health trainings help identify problems and offer solutions to restore equilibrium and boost productivity in business. Maureen is the owner of Hotchner Workplace Wellness.
Editor’s note: Recognizing something was “off” with my mental health, I solicited my wife’s EAP in 2002 and was diagnosed with ADD and depression. Two years later, I was editing a publication for EAPs!