Invisible Disabilities: Sharing What Can’t Be Seen
The workplace can be competitive. The last thing people want is to make themselves seem anything but the strongest competitor in the game.
Unfortunately, this has led to the stigmatization of chronic illness and disabilities. Many employees are hesitant to disclose their invisible disabilities to their employer, fearing that it could hold them back or change the dynamic too substantially for them to succeed at their job.
This is, of course, counterproductive to ensuring people can perform at their best and feel comfortable in their work environment. Accomodations can and should be made to allow you to work to the best of your abilities, without any barriers to make your work life more difficult.
These barriers can be physical, attitudinal, or systemic. They can be self-imposed or environmental. But if you have the motivation to uncover your abilities and choose to not see your disabilities as a limitation, then you can find the balance you need to keep moving forward as the strongest performer you can be.
Do you actually want or need to disclose the disability?
There are many emotions attached to disclosing an invisible disability. Stress, fear, feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty, just to name a few. Before tackling the process of going about working with your employer, you should reflect on whether you feel a certain disability is necessary for you to disclose.
When it comes to requiring accommodation, the Ontario Human Rights Commission states that you, as an employee, have a duty to do the following:
- Tell your employer, union, landlord or service provider what your disability-related needs are related to your job duties, tenancy or the services being provided
- Provide supporting information about your disability-related needs, including medical or other expert opinions where needed
- Take part in looking at possible accommodation solutions
This does not mean, however, that you are required to inform them of any disability or health concern that you feel does not relate to or impact your ability to do your job. It does mean, though, that should you require any form of accommodation in order to be at your best, then the onus is on you to disclose the concern with your employer.
For instance, you may have a musculoskeletal issue and you require a standing desk instead of the typical sitting workspace your office currently provides. To work towards the solution, you will need to disclose the issue to the employer. But, let’s say you have diabetes and feel that, without modifying your work schedule, you can continue to take any medication or blood tests required. Since you do not need an accommodation in order to mitigate your health concern, it is up to you whether or not you wish to address the topic with your employer.
Remember, if you are unsure whether a certain health concern or disability will require accommodation, or impact your job, you are ALWAYS safe to disclose it to your employer regardless. It can be better to be safe than sorry, and it will allow management to take your needs into consideration with changes to the business.
Do you know your legal rights yet?
In Ontario, your rights as an employee are enforced by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The details of what your rights entail are covered in “the Code” (the Ontario Human Rights Code).
The Code provides for equal rights and opportunities, and freedom from discrimination. The Code recognizes the dignity and worth of every person in Ontario. It applies to the areas of employment, housing, facilities and services, contracts, and membership in unions, trade or professional associations.
The Code ensures that, whether you have a disability or not, you are afforded the same opportunities as anyone else at your work. It also lays out the responsibilities of your employer in managing your job with respect to your disability. In the last section we covered the responsibilities you, as an employee, would have when it comes to accomodations. Here are the responsibilities on your employer:
- Accept requests for accommodation from employees, tenants and clients in good faith
- Ask only for information that you need to provide the accommodation. For example, you would need to know that an employee’s loss of vision prevents them from using printed material, but you do not need to know they have diabetes
- Take an active role in looking at accommodation solutions that meet individual needs
- Deal with accommodation requests as quickly as possible, even if it means creating a temporary solution while you develop a long-term one
- Respect the dignity of the person asking for accommodation, and keep information confidential
- Cover the costs of accommodations, including any required medical information or documentation (for example, doctors’ notes, assessments, letters setting out accommodation needs, etc.)
While the spirit of the Code is easy to explain, the intricacies of the law are manyfold. There are many resources available to help you navigate the Code, and if you’d like to learn more about the rights afforded you, and how to lodge complaints when your rights are trespassed on, you can start on the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s website.
Do you know who to disclose the disability to?
When you’ve made the decision to disclose a disability, it should go without saying that you should inform a member of your company’s HR foremost.
That is sufficient in terms of your responsibility to notify an employer about the need for accommodation. But you may wish to let other people know, as well. If you feel the accommodation concerns management, you may want to notify your supervisor or manager too. Particularly if they will need to be notified by HR about impending changes to your workspace or schedule, you may prefer to address the concern with them directly and explain what you feel they should know in regards to helping you remove barriers to your success. This can show you are proactive, and comfortable with owning the situation.
Additionally, you may like to share some relevant information with your coworkers. Some employees with accommodations report feeling ostracized, or that the secretive nature of their disability can cause confusion or uncertainty for their teammates. Bringing them in on what you need and what is happening can help maintain the inclusivity and remind them that you are simply looking to do your best to help the company and the team.
You are under no obligation, of course, to disclose anything to anyone. Even more importantly, though, if you DO disclose your situation to anyone, you are protected from any form of ableism that you feel it has caused. Keep that in mind as you consider who best to inform.
Do you know what you need to say?
And how you need to say it?
It is best practice to bring your concerns to your HR representative in writing. Email is the most common form, and will easily allow you to track the conversation down the road, if necessary.
When drafting your initial letter, you need to remain professional, and stick to the point. Your language should be confident; you are asking for something that you need and they have a responsibility to comply. You should also be clear about what you need.
The key elements your initial message should contain are:
- Identify yourself as a person with a disability
- Say that you’re requesting accommodations under the Human Rights Code
- Describe the specific job tasks that are problematic
- Describe your ideas for accommodations
- Ask for your employer’s input on accommodation options
- Attach medical documentation if relevant
- Ask for a timely response to your request
Once you have drafted your request for accommodation, there will likely be a conversation about how best to implement accommodations you require, or remove barriers you are currently facing. As with your initial request, keep the correspondence moving forward professional and continue to clearly state what you need. As long as your request is reasonable, you do not need to compromise or make allowances.
Do you know what accommodations you need?
Your employer will value your forthcomingness about your disability, but even more so your ability to provide solutions they can enact for your mutual benefit.
It is also a way to empower yourself, and prove your interests are purely in what you need in order to be at your best for yourself and the company as a whole.
You may wish to research what accommodation options are best suited to your disability in advance. This way you are able to recommend the optimal solutions for your employer to implement. You will probably already have a decent understanding of what would improve your work life; no one knows your exact disability better than you. That said, many alternative solutions can exist for similar problems, so looking into other ways your job can be improved can ensure you get the most effective results.
For instance, you may actually prefer a more ergonomic chair than a standing desk. You may prefer having set break times to take your medication than a completely different shift time. Your employer may also have suggestions about ways to help you, so keep an open ear, with a mind to find what works best for your work! Don’t forget to research online, or consult an expert such as your physician as well.
It can take a lot of courage to bring up an invisible disability or chronic health issue with an employer. Just remember, you are protected when doing so. And the courage to be your best and willingness to work with your employer to find the best path to success, while always surpassing any stigma in the workplace.