How can you accommodate what you don’t see? Just because a disability isn’t always visual doesn’t mean it should be ignored. In fact, in our experience, it’s a time for an employer, whether large or small, to shine. We frequently hear that hiring people with disabilities makes good business sense. It’s common to think of employees with disabilities as individuals who are in a wheelchair or blind. But what happens when the disability isn’t visible?
It’s not obviously apparent when you hire someone that they have a hidden or mental disability. There’s no label that says "HELLO! I’m a qualified employee who is prone to panic attacks." It’d be illegal if there was. It’s a personal choice for that employee to disclose their disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects that right.
However, we’ve seen that our employees like to talk about their individual disability in a safe space.
Understandably, not every corporate culture has this as a given practice, and it might not be in their corporate culture. For us, it was a learning experience. We’ve trained our employees about warning signs related to mental disabilities. Our managerial team is always looking out for our staff. Here’s how we’ve combatted the invisible, and dealt with the occasional emergency that has no warning.
As a manager, I’ve always wanted to be a good role model and an effective leader. With my mind constantly juggling facts, figures and finances, it can be an added stress to then worry about employee happiness and morale. At Accessibility Partners, a consulting service that offers audits that reveal to an organization how accessible they are or aren’t, I try to see more than the bottom line on QuickBooks, and I’ve been able to accomplish this through the power of talk. I make an effort to chat with my employees with disabilities. That’s not a small number. 85 percent of my workforce has one or more major disability. We have a productive dialogue and there is no need to keep disabilities or workplace problems secret. Still though, I’d be naïve if I said that conversation could fix everything.
Disabilities are a variable, and can be a detriment or benefit in any business where all employees contribute. For people with mental disabilities, last minute absences happen. Sometimes people with invisible disabilities might have trouble getting out of bed and being productive. Occasionally, employee absences transcend one day here and there, especially if they are committed to a long-term mental health facility. Unlike a vacation, these aren’t planned in advance. When this recently happened to us with one of our employees, it was difficult, especially in a small business where there isn’t a lot of manpower to spread around.
Many people asked me if she would have her job when she returned. It was a valid question. She lost us money, and stressed out a lot of her fellow employees who had to pick up the slack.
But at Accessibility Partners, we don’t judge someone on their disability. This wasn’t a shining moment for our employee, but I stacked it against four years of great job performance. It ended up being a drop in the bucket. Employee retention is a proven money saver. There is no money gained training a new employee, and that is a savings proved time and time again. It was a rough start back to work for that employee, but within a week or so, she was acclimated and back to her regular level of performance. I would have lost so much more time and money if we had to hire and train someone new.
Still, it didn’t just end when she came back to work. There’s also the maintenance of a hidden health disability with emotional components. Often, doctor’s and therapy appointments occur in the middle of the day. Take it from us: This must also be accommodated for to improve the health of an employee with a disability, but it is a real disturbance. Also, mental health is unpredictable. People can experience shifting moods or changing behaviors that might be unpleasant in an office. It can affect work, and impact co-workers. Not always the easiest, but with education and honesty, we’ve thrived.
That employee with a mental disability is grateful for her job. While she sometimes has emotional difficulties, she always tries to maintain a sunny attitude with her co-workers as they collaborate together. And that positive attitude is contagious! Take the time to educate yourself, and learn how to balance health with productivity. A disability can be difficult, but it will never totally derail you.
The only disability in life is a bad attitude, and she does not bring us down. The thing with invisible disabilities is that they really are everywhere. What doesn’t need to be hidden is the positive accommodations that come with diversifying your workforce of people with disabilities.
Dana Marlowe champions people with disabilities in the workforce and for accessible technology innovation. As the principal partner of Accessibility Partners, LLC, Dana works with organizations of all sizes to help make their products more accessible to users of all abilities to bridge the digital divide and promote inclusion.