Seeing the unseen – how to navigate invisible illnesses
Rachel Saxby, Project Manager at Bladonmore, explores ways anyone can make their workplace more inclusive for International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
Lots of companies talk about the importance of bringing your whole self to work, but often the stigma around disabilities can prevent people from doing just that. When many people think of disabilities, they think of physical impairments, but the term covers a far wider set of circumstances. My own journey with type 1 diabetes made me realise that disabilities come in all shapes and sizes and has helped me understand what we could all do to make it easier for everyone to bring their whole self to work, every day.
People with invisible, or hidden, disabilities can find it hard to advocate for themselves in situations where they need assistance. Often their requests are met with a puzzled look or comment. My experience is that this makes you feel that you must constantly explain yourself and help others to understand that even though you don’t look like you have a disability, that doesn’t mean you don’t.
Even though type 1 diabetes is classed a disability, I’ve never seen myself as disabled. This could be because I can go about my day-to-day life independently, or that it’s something that can generally be hidden if I didn’t want anyone to know. However, when the dreaded low or high blood sugars arise, this can drastically affect my behaviour and how ‘hidden’ this disease really is. If other people are not aware of what is happening it can be misconstrued as agitation, confusion or disinterest, but when people take the time to dig a bit deeper, it is easy to discover what is really happening.
What can we do as individuals?
There are some easy things that everyone can do in the workplace to help support their colleagues who may have a disability, whether it is visible or not.
- Check they’re okay
As simple as it sounds, this is arguably the most important single action anyone can take. If a colleague seems to be acting contrary to their normal selves, simply asking the question provides them with a safe space to talk about it if they wish. It doesn’t necessarily mean they will want to, but opening up that conversation will let them know that they’re not being judged or criticised if their behaviour is unusual, and that you’re open to listen.
- Offer support
We all have days when we’re not feeling great or having a bad day. Unfortunately, if you have an invisible illness, these days may come around more often for you than they do for others. If you notice a colleague is struggling, offering your support is a great way to help relieve pressure for that individual.
- Raise awareness
Raising awareness is often something only done by those with a disability. When others join in and help, it can have a really positive impact. Discussing a colleague’s disability with them, when invited to do so, can be helpful in changing the way they feel about how they are perceived at work and make them feel more comfortable to reach out when they need to.
What can businesses do?
To support colleagues navigating disabilities, businesses have their own responsibility to uphold an inclusive workplace culture.
- Be clear on policy
It is not enough to just have a policy around employee disability rights. You have to go further. Be open and clear in explaining exactly what the policy is and how it works. This will help people use your policies when they need it most and save them from scrambling to find out how it works when something has already happened.
- Drive awareness
Don’t just leave it to individuals within your business to take action on their own. The business itself should be communicating internally to drive awareness. Doing so not only provides an opportunity to set out your position and reinforce your policy, but it also helps everyone at work to understand the difficulties that others may experience and to respond with empathy.
- Appoint key contacts
Appoint a team member for any disabled persons to contact when they need assistance or have a question. This means that people know who they can talk to, rather than either trying to deal with any situation in isolation or hoping to find an empathetic colleague to help, which would only exacerbate a high stress situation.
If you’re looking for help communicating your company’s approach to diversity and inclusion, get in touch.