The negative impact of keeping disabilities hiddenby
Keeping a disability a secret can have a detrimental impact on all aspects of an employee's professional life. So how can HR provide a more supportive workplace that encourages openness and awareness?
If you were asked how many staff members in your organisation have a disability, would you know? Would you be able to give an accurate answer? Obviously, you could probably calculate workers with visible impairments, (such as wheelchair users or those using mobility aids), but you might be shocked to learn that 80% of all disabilities are non-visible.
What does that tell us? Well, it means that 11 million people in the UK, will at some point in their lives decide whether (or not) they should reveal their disability to their employers. So, answering the question about the number of people you employ with disabilities is not as straightforward as you’d imagine.
One in three people feel that those with disabilities are ‘less productive’ and that 17% of people feel those with disabilities are ‘abnormal’
So, what are non-visible disabilities?
The number of non-visible disabilities is vast. Some of the more common include visual and auditory impairments, depression, Asperger’s, ADHD, Crohn’s Disease, dyslexia, dyspraxia, asthma, cognitive impairments, chronic pain, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, diabetes, obsessive compulsive disorder, dysgraphia, rheumatoid arthritis...the list goes on. The impact on the individual with the disability can be huge and you as the ‘outsider’ looking in may see none of it.
As these are invisible conditions, many people often feel that life might be easier for them to remain a secret in the workplace. The reason for this is usually built around the concern that you may be discriminated against, stigmatised, or perceived as different.
There’s also the worry of how colleagues may react. Would they label you, make a fuss of or offer unwanted sympathy? It’s also worth considering that one in three people feel that those with disabilities are ‘less productive’ and that 17% of people feel those with disabilities are ‘abnormal’. Those statistics alone could easily lead you to keep your impairment a secret.
Why reveal your disability?
Hiding a disability can be incredibly stressful and anxiety inducing as a US study recently proved. In the Centre for Talent Innovation’s ‘Disabilities and Inclusion’ report, it was discovered that employees that do reveal their disability are more than twice as likely to feel happy or content at work than those who do not (65% versus 27%). They are also much less likely to regularly feel nervous or anxious (18% versus 40%) or isolated (8% versus 37%).
Keeping disability a secret can also jeopardise a person’s physical health. For example, appointments to see specialists or doctors may be postponed or avoided through a person’s fear of requesting too much leave from their manager. A worker may avoid asking for a break at certain times when they are really needed, or they may be asked to work on through breaks during busy periods when in fact, (unbeknown to their manager), this can be incredibly detrimental to their health.
The key to creating a workplace culture where staff feel comfortable opening up, is by developing a fully inclusive, empathetic environment, and understanding team that is accepting of all disabilities. The first place to start with this is by raising disability awareness.
Awareness in the workplace
If you have staff that have chosen to keep their disability a secret, you fundamentally have a problem. That problem is a lack of disability awareness within the workplace culture, and thankfully it can be rectified. The first place to start is through disability awareness training.
Awareness training programmes in the workplace will encourage and support people to be confident and comfortable revealing and discussing their disabilities, helping colleagues to be more understanding, whilst also helping people with disabilities to gain the support they need to improve their working lives.
At the training stage, encouraging the participation of managerial and senior staff is especially important, as awareness and understanding of disability will trickle down to all other staff members, allowing a more supportive and inclusive workforce to develop.
It is also important to choose a user-led organisation (meaning the courses are designed and delivered by people with disabilities themselves), as a training provider. Topics of the training should include aspects that cover disability disclosure and how to encourage openness, as well as non-visible disabilities, and other modules such as etiquette, communication, correct use of language, inclusive behaviour, legislation and how to best make reasonable adjustments.
A sustained culture shift
After implementing training, it is a good idea to ensure that refresher courses are also maintained at intervals, and that new team members are introduced to disability awareness training as part of company policy. Once staff are trained and there is an increased sense of openness around disability, you can look at developing a disability steering group, allowing staff to raise points, to discuss disability in meetings and forums.
This would ideally involve people at all levels of seniority from various teams. Here the group can meet at regular intervals, to discuss accessibility in all areas of the organisation. The group can feedback to management any issues regarding change providing comment on policy, and amplifying the voice of staff with disabilities. This group can give consideration to all internal and external aspects from processes, the workplace, services and IT to customer service, the company website and so on.
This can be reinforced with the introduction of case studies, allowing other people with disabilities within the organisation (who may thus far have kept quiet) to see the adjustments put in place for colleagues. Another step would be to look at the make up of senior teams, how many different groups are represented? If the numbers are low, then you can investigate what barriers within the organisation might be stopping advancement.
As a company becomes more inclusive it will reap the rewards in all areas of the business
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A positive change
In summary, implementing disability awareness training is the first step in allowing your entire workforce to gradually develop a truly positive understanding of disability. It will also raise the team’s confidence, empathy and understanding, and you’ll remove the barriers that may have previously prevented workers discussing their disability. From there you can sustain this shift in culture by providing staff with a steering group platform to regularly assess company accessibility.
As a company becomes more inclusive it will reap the rewards in all areas of the business. Customer facing staff will have a better understanding of disability and feel more confident in their communications. The PR team will even be able to shout about your achievements as an accessible organisation.
It’s also highly likely that news of your inclusivity could begin to reach the radars of customers with a disability. Which, when you consider the spending power of people with disabilities is a huge £1.8 billion per month, is a market certainly worth considering.