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Here’s how agencies can better accommodate people with hidden disabilities

With an estimated one in seven people in the UK living with hidden disabilities, James Marsden, a senior data strategist at Rapp UK who acts as a lead on the organization’s disability initiatives, says that businesses are failing to accommodate people with these challenges. Here he discusses how they can improve.

The 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was known for many things — seeing the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War, implementing his New Deal of economic reforms and public work projects and serving an unprecedented four terms as commander-in-chief.

One thing that he didn’t want people to know him for was his disability — having recovered from polio, FDR kept the fact he often needed a wheelchair from the public eye. He even went to the lengths of devising a method of walking where he used a cane and his son’s arms to maintain his balance when walking to a podium. All because he never wanted Americans to be aware of his disability and build an impression he was helpless.

Here in the UK, it is estimated that there are 11 million of us (one in seven) with similar challenges, having a hidden disability. Very simply, a hidden disability is classed as anything that can impair a person’s life physically or mentally that may not be immediately obvious to others.

I have the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis or MS — the nerves in my brain and spine are damaged so the signals don’t travel as well to certain parts of my body. Looking at me you wouldn’t point and say, “he has MS.” My symptoms manifest themselves in problems that aren’t immediately or very obvious to anyone except myself and my family.

That one in seven people live with a hidden disability means you’ll either have a hidden disability or most likely have a friend or family member with one. The fact it impacts on so many of us should serve as an important reminder that we should always stop and think before we judge; before we make assumptions. No matter how a person ‘looks,’ things are not always as they appear.

From dyslexia to diabetes, autism to ADHD — hidden disabilities are all very different in how they present themselves, how they affect people and how they can be treated. However, one thing that unites everyone living with these conditions is life at work is often a challenge that is silently shouldered by those impacted; often facing discrimination at some point in their working life as a result.

It is also clear that businesses are missing out by not accommodating these challenges. In April to June 2020, the employment rate for disabled people was 54%, whereas for non-disabled people it was 82%. Now there are obviously reasons for this where people are physically not able to work, but this gets even lower when looking at one of the hidden disabilities mentioned earlier — autism. Only 22% of people living with autism are in employment. They face significant barriers to work such as the recruitment process or workplace attitudes and biases.

With a fifth (22%) of UK workers realizing their current role isn’t the right fit for them post-pandemic, can companies afford not to be making adjustments to retain and recruit staff?

Unfortunately, the question of what employees with hidden disabilities want, need and require to make working easier is often a difficult one for businesses to pre-empt. The variety of conditions and individual reluctance to often reveal disability further exacerbate the situation.

I can testify to that reluctance — it took me over five years to even contemplate telling anyone except my immediate manager at work. I didn’t want to admit to others I had a perceived ‘weakness’ and I was fearful for what that would mean for my role and career progression. In fact, I’m not alone — in a survey last year of people with MS, 59% of responders said they’d not told their work colleagues, including HR.

The good news is these challenges can be overcome — with Covid heralding more flexibility in terms of working location and work-life balance, those with hidden disabilities are faced with a less challenging work environment. Companies can take further steps to make themselves even more attractive and inclusive to those with hidden disabilities, including:

Support and adjustments: proactively offer to make reasonable adjustments as required — but do so in a considerate and supportive manner so as to take account of an employee’s individual circumstances.

Become Disability Confident: get accredited by this voluntary government scheme to make the most of the opportunities provided by employing disabled people — and make your organization more attractive to potential employees in doing so. Here are some resources.

Adapt your recruitment: actively attract and recruit disabled people using disability-specific hiring locations (such as the Scope job board and Evenbreak) and run bootcamps for hiring managers. Proactively and empathetically ask in interviews about any hidden disability and use case studies to show how the business accommodates. You can find resources here and here.

Create safe spaces for people with hidden disabilities to talk openly: it could be the challenges people have faced, what help they need or what assumptions people make about them. If those affected can have an open discussion in a forum they trust with their peers, it will benefit both the employee and employer.

Start telling others about your progress in this space: a great way to signpost you’re disability inclusion-ready is to start featuring disability or disability considerations in your organization’s output.

These actions will help make companies more attractive to those with hidden disabilities (remember, one in seven people). If we start having the conversations and removing the stigmas at the same time, everyone stands to benefit from making their organization a better place to work for disabled people and, in turn, reaping the rewards from their talent.

And who knows — perhaps you’ll have the next FDR-level talent on your hands.

If you want to know more about how companies can improve accessibility internally, click here. If you want to read more stories like this, sign up to our Work & Wellbeing newsletter here.

James Marsden is a Senior Data Strategist at RAPP at RAPP UK

This Article originally ran in The Drum in March 2022

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