The world of workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a broad and shifting landscape, and it’s currently undergoing another much-needed evolution. With the rising importance of neurodiversity in DE&I initiatives, employers and HR pros are starting to recognize the existence of hidden disabilities.
Hidden disabilities, also referred to as “invisible disabilities,” denote conditions that aren’t easily perceived by outside onlookers. For example, I am an Autistic person. While I can usually spot another Autistic person with ease, people outside the Autism community might never know I was Autistic unless I told them. Hidden disabilities cover a vast and varied spectrum, including ADHD, mental health conditions, and learning disabilities, to name only a few. Moreover, the effects of the same condition can vary significantly from person to person.
Hidden disabilities are more common than you might think: According to research from The Center for Talent Innovation, 30 percent of white-collar workers have disabilities, but only 39 percent of employees with disabilities disclose this information to their managers. And these statistics don’t necessarily account for those who have a hidden condition they don’t choose to call a “disability.” For example, an individual with dyslexia may consider their dyslexia a “condition” rather than a “disability.” Furthermore, physical disabilities that are evident to onlookers may also come with hidden disabilities, such as depression or PTSD.
Individuals with disabilities are a historically underrepresented group in the workplace (and beyond). For employers who want to recruit and retain these individuals, it’s essential to tap into the expertise of people in the disabled community to help guide your DE&I initiatives. If you work directly with people with disabilities, you will find lived experience and a lot less misinformation and generalization.
The Social Model vs. the Medical Model of Disability
As we approach the topic of recruiting and supporting people with hidden disabilities, it might be helpful to first discuss the two distinct models of disability: the social model and the medical model.
The social model of disability, which dates back to the 1970s, posits that disability results from a person’s social setting. In this model, disability is not inherent in a person’s condition. Rather, it is the effect of living in an inaccessible political, economic, architectural, and/or social environment.
In contrast, the medical model of disability, which is prevalent in the West, focuses on disability as an inherent source of disadvantage, regardless of one’s environment. Disability advocates often refer to the medical model of disability as the “deficit model” because the model views an individual with a disability through a lens of fundamental impairment.
While the social model focuses on strengths, abilities, and attitudes in different contexts, the medical model suggests there is a “correct,” “normal” way of being. The medical model focuses on remedying a problem or person in order to help them attain this “normal” way of being.
Many disability advocates today prefer the social model, using it to raise awareness of social justice issues and critically examine cultural constraints and expectations placed on people with disabilities. Because the social model posits an individual’s disability is partially an artifact of the environment, advocates work to diminish the societal and environmental barriers that “handicap” individuals.
Supporting People With Hidden Disabilities at Work
A social model approach to disability can be incredibly powerful in the workplace. When companies adopt the social model of disability, they’ll keep the focus on a person’s strengths, creating and maintaining environments that support those strengths. For example, a worker with sensory sensitivities would have a level of control over their physical workspace, allowing them to change the office lighting or temperature to create a comfortable environment conducive to their best work.
As one example of the social model in action, consider a recent virtual companywide meeting at Ultranauts, Inc., the engineering firm where I work. (As a note, 75 percent of Ultrananuts’ employees are Autistic.) During this meeting, a company leader publicly shared — in detail — their personal struggles with mental health and depression. This particular meeting was historically reserved for business updates and metrics reports, so the personal story came as a surprise. But, as the leader spoke, the chatbox lit up with sentiments of gratitude:
“I love this company.”
“The world needs more companies like this. Revolutionized my life, <3. Love working here.”
“This job has helped my self-confidence increase exponentially.”
The workplace community members did not view depression through a medical lens of deficit and impairment. They did not view their coworker’s hidden condition as something that made the employee inferior. Instead, the community focused on personal strengths, like the leader’s bravery, vulnerability, and raw honesty in the moment. Moreover, the unique experience enabled participants to connect with each other through shared human experiences. This is effective DE&I in action.
One way to proactively support people with hidden disabilities is to make DE&I a company priority. In particular, I’m talking about a specific kind of DE&I that allows for what I call “diversity with dignity.” This is a form of DE&I that reduces the need for employees to even disclose hidden disabilities because quality, inclusive measures are in place and available to the whole workforce.
What does this kind of DE&I look like in practice? In general, company leaders should be able to articulate how the company fosters a sense of belonging and psychological well-being for every employee. Inclusivity measures should clear touch every department and every individual and business stakeholder.
To paint a more concrete picture, I offer some examples from Ultranauts. To quote Ultranauts cofounder and CEO Rajesh Anandan, the company strives to “create a universal workplace where everyone can thrive. To do this, we’re redesigning every aspect of our business, with an emphasis on the well-being of our team.” Those design choices include:
• Incorporating flexible work as the norm.
• Promoting transparent decision-making.
• Using job tests and/or work simulations to screen all applicants for all roles, not just neurodivergent applicants or entry-level roles.
• Creating an inclusive agile practice that adapts agile and scrum frameworks so all team members can participate fully.
• Introducing a Team Net Loneliness score to measure social isolation, giving leaders the data they need to better support team connectedness and well-being.
Other signs of effective DE&I include employee resource groups with a true seat at the table; interview templates and rubrics designed with equity goals in mind; and the collection of DE&I feedback during regular employee surveys, which is then used to inform real changes to company practices.
When it comes to hidden disabilities in the workplace, we need to prepare for both the present and the future. People with hidden disabilities are not going anywhere. In fact, the disability community at large is only going to continue expanding. As disability rates increase due to a combination of factors — e.g., advances in the identification and diagnosis of disabilities, increased public awareness, the mental health consequences of political unrest and the global health crisis — it’s probable the disability community will one day no longer be a minority.
In the words of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, “Words may show a man’s wit, actions his meaning.” As hidden disabilities come to occupy a more prominent role in DE&I efforts, employers need to do more than take note; they need to take action. Furthermore, as citizens of the world, we each need to do our part to ensure millions of individuals are not unjustly left out of the workplace landscape.
This article is adapted from the upcoming book, Autism in a Briefcase: Straight Talk About Belonging in a Neurodiverse World.
Marcelle Ciampi (a.k.a. Samantha Craft), MEd, is author of Everyday Aspergers and senior manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Ultranauts, Inc. She can be reached at myspectrumsuite.com and [email protected]. Follow Marcelle on LinkedIn under the hashtag #diversitywithdignity.