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Tips for handling your employees’ invisible disabilities

Tips for handling your employees’ invisible disabilities

Bill in the construction crew has to take a break twice a day to take an insulin shot, which sometimes frustrates other workers, because they think he is getting extra breaks in violation of union policies. Mary in accounting comes in an hour late and stays an hour late because her depression medication causes extreme morning grogginess.

These are fictional situations, but millions of Americans suffer from hidden disabilities that can affect their workplace routines and necessitate accommodations by employers. These invisible disabilities include epilepsy, bipolar disorder, arthritis, attention deficit disorder, lupus, anxiety disorders, and PTSD, to name just a few.

Discussing any disability at work can be tricky, and educating coworkers, supervisors, and employers on this topic is challenging, but crucial. The tips below can help you handle your employees’ non-visible disabilities with tact and compassion, and can help you understand when accommodation under the ADA may be necessary.

What constitutes a disability?

When you think of a disability, you may picture someone in a wheelchair or a blind person with a white cane. But when it comes to dealing with disabilities at work, the definition that applies is a legal one, not a medical one. Under the ADA, someone has a disability if they:

  1. Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; and
  2. Have a record of such impairment or are regarded as having such impairment.

A covered disability can include a broad range of conditions, from cardiovascular and neurological impairments to major depression and certain learning disabilities, as long as the condition limits one or more major life activities (like sitting, standing, or sleeping). Additionally, the disability determination is made without regard to any mitigating measures, such as medication, that eliminate symptoms. An impairment like cancer could also be considered a disability even if the person is in remission, as long as there is a possibility the cancer could return.

Reasonable accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that reasonable accommodation be provided, if necessary, for all people with disabilities, whether hidden or visible. These must be determined on a case-by-case basis and can include making facilities accessible for wheelchairs, adjusting the application and interview process, job restructuring, and equipment modification.

Unfortunately, in today’s workplace, if a disability is not observable, many people have difficulty understanding the need for accommodation, and some employees think coworkers are receiving favoritism. “If a person requests an accommodation, the employer can work in partnership with the individual,” says Betsy Jaros, vice president of corporate development for Minnesota Diversified Industries, a company that promotes opportunities for workers with disabilities.

It’s also important to note that a request for accommodation doesn’t have to be in writing or include the terms “reasonable accommodation,” “Americans with Disabilities Act,” or even “disability,” in order to be a valid request under the law.

Tips for handling invisible disabilities

Jaros offers these tips for employees and employers who may be working with a disabled colleague:

  • All parties need to keep the discussion performance-based, but never assume a disability in the workplace will cause substandard performance.
  • Maintain “people-first” language and preferred disability terminology. People have illnesses, medical conditions, and varying cognitive abilities. For example, say “person with bipolar disorder” versus “she is bipolar.”
  • When disclosure occurs, the supervisor — if not already familiar with the ADA — must find resource to get up to speed and maintain compliance.

“Wherever there are performance issues, it’s critical to begin a dialogue with the individual as quickly as possible,” says Jaros. “A person with a disability does not want their disability to excuse performance on the job — they are as concerned with excellence and productivity as their employer.”

Often, the accommodation is as simple as an ergonomic chair, adaptive phone equipment to assist with hearing, reassignment of a non-essential task, or a minor scheduling adjustment. If you’re having trouble finding an effective and reasonable solution for your employee’s invisible disability, the Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network can help.

Discussing disabilities at work

Unfortunately, disability discrimination charges are increasing at both federal and state levels. And even though HR personnel are continually educated on the ADA, not all employers are in tune with applicable laws and regulations.

Marshall Tanick, an attorney with the law firm Mansfield, Tanick and Cohen, and an author of numerous articles related to disabilities in the workplace, says any discussion about a worker’s disability should be brought up only with HR personnel and discussions should focus on potential and needed accommodations, not prognoses, therapies, or current concerns.

“Once an employee is hired, the employee may want to subsequently bring up the hidden disability,” says Tanick. “An employee might want to explain the nature of the disability and what type of accommodations may need to be made, such as an occasional absence for appointments. However, the employee should not indicate, directly or indirectly, that the disability prevents them from doing the essential functions of the job, because, if it does, then they are not legally protected under ADA or any disability laws.”

“The most common reason a person may want to disclose their disability is that it allows an individual to request or discuss accommodations,” says Jaros. “When this occurs, it is important the employer or coworker only request disability information related to the individual’s ability to perform the job.”

However, some employees also feel that talking more openly with coworkers about their invisible disability can be helpful. Some feel it may lead to understanding and a willingness to work together to help accommodate them and make them as productive as possible.

“People develop relationships and feel the need to share their personal and daily issues with coworkers,” says Jaros. “Some people are very close with those they work with, and for some, being open about it helps them deal with it better.”

Hire and manage with confidence

There is no perfect model when it comes to building an effective, productive team. And a person with disabilities can be just as much of an asset as those without, whether they’re dealing with visible or invisible disabilities. But knowing how to handle every type of personnel scenario is challenging. Get help hiring and managing your team by signing up for Monster Hiring Solutions, where you’ll receive expert recruiting advice and the latest hiring trends.

Legal Disclaimer: None of the information provided herein constitutes legal advice on behalf of Monster.