Science and Tech


The fight to get representation for invisible disabilities

Invisible disabilities like autoimmune diseases or developmental conditions can sometimes be ignored or discredited, especially in the workplace.
Posted at 8:48 PM, Feb 13, 2023

Many people live with disabilities that are often considered invisible — ones that, unless somebody said they had them, no one would know. 

This includes conditions like diabetes, vision or hearing problems, and chronic pain. There are also things like autoimmune diseases, developmental conditions — like autism spectrum disorder — and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

There's not an exact measurement of how many people are included in this group, as it can depend on how one defines a disability. But the CDC estimates 61 million Americans have a disability that affects major life functions, and the advocacy group Disabled World estimates about 1 in 10 Americans have an invisible disability.

Those who have a disability, visible or not, do have some protections. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers and many public spaces to provide reasonable accommodations, but it's not always that simple.

"Fear is the major reason why people with disabilities, invisible or otherwise, don't disclose them," said Linda Fisk, CEO and founder of LeadHERship Global. "Those who are already employed may be afraid of opening themselves up to any kind of discrimination. But on the other hand, some people don't want to be seen for their disability, which they may consider to be a minor part of their life, so they don't want to disclose that. They don't want to be identified as someone who is disabled or has a disability."

Fisk has pushed for companies to adjust their approaches to make them more inclusive for people with disabilities. She's also experienced some of this first-hand dealing with her own invisible disabilities, which include diabetes and hearing loss.

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Fisk says even beyond the legal requirements, there's more companies can do to accommodate workers with disabilities.

"As an employer, you also can give them a safe place, a designated safe place, to have conversation and to receive support and to receive access to company resources," Fisk said. "That brings me to the last point, which is your company can offer support for employees with, especially with, invisible disabilities by making sure that mental health coverage is included in your company's insurance plan."

The health research nonprofit KFF found roughly half of all firms provide employer-based health care coverage. That usually includes mental health care.

Making things more accommodating can be beneficial to the bottom line. A 2018 study by the consulting firm Accenture found that companies they dubbed "Disability Inclusion Champions" brought in 28% more revenue.

But at least one major accommodation for workers with disabilities — remote work — is on the decline. In 2022, LinkedIn data revealed a pretty significant drop in the percentage of job opportunities offering remote work, from 20% in February down to 14% in September.

Those who don't have a disability and don't know someone first-hand with one may see the main depictions of disabilities in pop culture. But it turns out there aren't a whole lot of examples of people with invisible disabilities, especially when it comes to ones such as chronic pain.

"We didn't find there were really that many, so we searched through hundreds of movies," said Karim Mukhida, an anesthesiologist and chronic pain physician at Dalhousie University. "Although there are a lot of movies that will depict acute pain — so, pain due to surgery or trauma or some violent act — in terms of movies that depict patients or characters that have chronic pain, there were very few."

But that oversight isn't stopping some advocates from making sure that disabilities of all forms are presented with sensitivity and accuracy on screen.

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